Nurses appoint Saudi lawyer

The two nurses facing murder charges in Saudi Arabia have been visited in jail by the British consul and have appointed a Saudi legal expert to represent them at their trial.

Tim Lamb, the consul, spent 15 minutes with each of the women in Damman central prison, after flying 250 miles from Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Lucille McLauchlan, 31, of Dundee, and Deborah Parry, 41, of the Midlands, both said they were in good health and being treated well by prison officials.

The women are accused of the murder on 11 December of Yvonne Gifford, 55, an Australian nurse who worked with them at Dhahran hospital on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Mr Lamb spoke to them individually and was able to take personal messages which have been passed on to their families.

Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Andrew Green, said both women were "naturally anxious" but bearing up quite well "in the circumstances". "They selected a lawyer to represent them. We are now in touch with that lawyer and we are seeking access for him to go and visit the two prisoners," he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme yesterday.

The ambassador also said he believed they would get a just hearing. "I think we should be careful not to assume that because the procedures here are completely different, that they are necessarily unjust. I think that would be a mistake to assume that," he said. He added that 30,000 British citizens lived and worked "perfectly happily" in Saudi Arabia, many of them for years. Only "a handful" ever got into trouble, and at present there were just five British citizens being held in jail, including the two nurses.

Officials at the British embassy in Riyadh said the lawyer chosen was highly respected. "He is a local lawyer who is familiar with sharia law and who speaks both English and Arabic. He also has a good working relationship with the authorities," one said.

The two nurses had had no contact with the British authorities since they were spoken to briefly on Christmas Eve by diplomats while they were being held at a police station.

With no date set for their trial, the case has already attracted great media attention and the Foreign Office yesterday expressed "concern" over reports in a Saudi newspaper published in London that the Britons had confessed to the killing. The paper, Al-Hayat, alleged that a fingerprint from one of the suspects was found in Ms Gilford's room and that the Australian nurse was battered with a teapot before being stabbed with a kitchen knife. It claimed that almost pounds 2,500 was removed from Ms Gilford's bank account in the three days after her death.

The details have not been carried in Saudi-based Arabic newspapers, and it is not clear whether British authorities will raise concern over prejudice to the trial. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Whether it is the Saudi press or the UK press, we are always concerned about subjective items or items discussing the case."

He added that assurances of the integrity of the justice system given by the Saudi ambassador in London, Dr Ghazi Algosaibi, last weekend were "helpful". "He was obviously seeking to establish that they will have a fair trial, and certainly suggestions of summary executions are irresponsible. No Westerner in recent times has been executed in Saudi Arabia."