Saudi Justice: Code of law centuries away from British legal system

According to its defenders, the Sharia, the Muslim code of law, is far from the brutal system commonly portrayed in the press.

It is, however, very different from the British legal system. Courts usually sit in closed session and judges interpret laws rigidly from eighth- century Koranic and prophetic texts. The best judges, or qadis, are considered to be those straight from college because of their assumed purity.

In cases of murder, such as with Yvonne Gilford, the state is bound to respect the wishes of the victim's family.

The Koran gives relatives of a murder victim the absolute right to insist on a "life for a life". Yet it heaps praise on those who forgive and pardon.

"Hand-chopping" is applied only in very specific kinds of theft and under most stringent conditions.

Criminals, for example, do not lose hands for embezzlement, forgery, stealing public money, or stealing items not properly protected.

There are other examples of a more liberal approach. According to the Sharia, a wife, in the marriage contract, can retain the right to divorce and can specify the financial settlement when a divorce occurs.

Likewise, adultery cannot be established unless four witnesses convince the court that they saw with their own eyes "the whole thing".

But the system is not welcomed by everyone. Lawyers for Parry and McLauchlan said yesterday: "Whilst it is accepted that the Saudi judicial system must operate under its own rules of procedure, it is difficult to understand a system which provides the accused with no information as to the evidence he or she faces and a judicial process where no witness evidence is heard."

And punishments, when they come, are unequivocal. There have been 100 executions in Saudi Arabia so far this year. Earlier this month, five Saudis were beheaded after being found guilty of kidnapping and raping a young boy, while a Filipino was executed for stabbing a man to death.

Three months ago, a young west African woman was beheaded in public in Jeddah, while three other women - two Pakistanis and a Saudi - had their heads cut off in Saudi Arabia last year. The Saudi woman had been convicted of shooting her husband; the others were all convicted of smuggling drugs.

Amnesty International estimates there have been between 120 and 200 floggings in Saudi Arabia this year. Two of those involved secondary school students convicted of assaulting their teacher. Amnesty says that in 1995 an Egyptian national was sentenced to 4,000 lashes.