Nurses in shackles as Saudi trial starts

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Two British nurses accused of murdering a colleague at a Saudi Arabian hospital appeared at the opening session of their trial yesterday, handcuffed and with shackles on their ankles.

Deborah Parry, from Alton in Hampshire, and Lucille McLauchlan, from Dundee, arrived in a police van at Khobar Supreme Court at noon dressed in traditional black Saudi robes. Escorted by their lawyer, Salah al-Hejailan, and flanked by a dozen policemen, the two women, hampered by the shackles, walked into the courthouse through a side door.

Ms McLauchlan appeared healthy and relaxed, but Ms Parry looked drawn as they entered the courthouse to appear before a three-judge tribunal. Also present was the British Consul, General William Patey. Police prevented the press from entering the courthouse.

Ms Parry, 41, and Ms McLauchlan, 31, face the death penalty, possibly by public beheading, if convicted of killing 55-year-old Australian nurse Yvonne Gilford. They have been detained for nearly six months. Ms Gilford's body was found last December at the King Fahd Military Medical Complex in Dhahran, where the three worked. Saudi authorities said she had been stabbed four times, beaten and suffocated.

Mr al-Hejailan said last night that the family of the dead woman had demanded at the opening session of the trial the death penalty for the women if they are found guilty.

"This unfortunate case has the potential for bringing about a clash of cultures across continents," Mr al-Hejailan said. "Those adhering to the definition of values prevailing in Australia and the UK are put in the position of having to transfer and apply that set of values meaningfully within a foreign culture and within the deeply religious framework of Islam."

Lawyers from the International Law Firm, representing the victim's family, attended the two-hour hearing. In an atmosphere described by one legal source as "increasingly difficult", British lawyers are thought to have been instructed by the Foreign Office not to speak publicly about the case.

The women have been jailed in nearby Dammam. If convicted they could face public beheading by the sword, the first time Western women would have been executed in the conservative Islamic kingdom.

Under Islamic law, which is enforced in Saudi Arabia, the victim's family has the right to demand the death penalty or accept blood money. Last month, Frank Gilford, the brother of the victim, rejected an appeal from the nurses' lawyers to waive the death penalty.

A total of 39 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year. Six foreigners were beheaded yesterday for theft and drug smuggling.

Saudi police said the nurses had confessed to the murder and that the confessions had been filed with Saudi judges. But Mr al-Hejailan's firm said they did so only because they were told it would mean they would not face prosecution and could go home.