Saudi Justice: King Fahd's dilemma: Islamic justice versus Western values

The British nurses Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan were last night facing reported sentences of death and 500 lashes respectively, following the murder of a fellow nurse in Saudi Arabia. But, according to Jojo Moyes, frantic diplomatic efforts are likely to prevent a humanitarian and diplomatic crisis.
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The Independent Online
Last night the nurses slept in the Central Prison in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, apparently unaware of an unfolding diplomatic furore over reports that one had been sentenced to death, the other to 500 lashes and eight years in prison.

Lucille McLauchlan's sentence, for "offences related" to the death of the Australian nurse Yvonne Gilford, was confirmed yesterday by her lawyers, who were told of it at a hearing in El Khobar and who immediately lodged an appeal.

The Foreign Office was yesterday trying to confirm the fate of Deborah Parry, also charged with Ms Gilford's murder, after lawyers representing Ms Gilford's family issued a statement saying that Ms Parry had been sentenced to death by beheading.

"Defendant Deborah Parry has been found guilty of intentional murder punishable by death and defendant Lucille McLauchlan has been found guilty of related offences and sentenced to flogging and eight years in prison," said the Saudi-based International Law Firm.

Confusion followed. The Foreign Office and Ms Parry's lawyer in Saudi Arabia, Salah al-Hejailan, stressed that no verdict had been reached regarding the nurse. But Mr Hejailan said that the victim's brother had agreed not to press for the death penalty.

"A settlement has been signed with [Frank] Gilford to waive the death penalty. It is signed and done and witnessed and authenticated," he said. According to Islamic law, or sharia, Mr Gilford can instead accept some form of reparation.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Algosaibi, reiterated this. "If this agreement is finalised, and I understand it is, then there will be no question of the death penalty being imposed at any point of the proceedings," he said. Later he added: "We're not going to change our system or our religion or our customs to appeal to journalists, or to bleeding heart liberals of the media all over the world. Justice was done, enough people have seen this done."

But, last night, Mr Gilford refused to confirm or deny reports that he would grant clemency. "What agreement? Who said that? Who brought that out?" he said.

Dr Mai Yamani, a Saudi expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said the lashes would be given in small doses over an extended period.

"They are not meant to inflict pain ... and it is basically meant to humiliate the convicted. If you look from the Saudi Arabian point of view, they are very surprised that these emotions have been triggered by 500 lashes to a person that may have been part of a crime that has been so violent and ugly," she said on BBC2's Newsnight programme.

In Britain, reaction to the women's reported fate was swift and unhappy. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said he was "deeply concerned" by the severity of Ms McLauchlan's sentence. "That is wholly unacceptable in a modern world," he said, adding that he would be redoubling his efforts on the case.

The plight of the two nurses has prompted an unusual level of diplomatic activity. According to Amnesty International, there have been between 120 and 200 floggings in Saudi Arabia so far this year. Floggings take place publicly or behind prison walls, and are carried out using a metre-long bamboo cane.

This year, 107 people have been beheaded for murder, rape and drugs smuggling in the kingdom.

Diplomats and lawyers stressed yesterday that neither of the nurses was likely to receive the full reported sentence. But Britain and Saudi Arabia are under heavy pressure to find a diplomatic solution acceptable to both sides. This is not surprising given the trade relationship between the two countries. Last year, visible exports from the UK, one-quarter of them arms, totalled pounds 2.5bn, while imports, mainly oil, totalled around pounds 752m.

Both governments are apparently keen to avoid a repeat of the four-month diplomatic stand-off that took place following the television screening here of the film Death of a Princess. This depicted the public beheading of a 19-year-old member of the Saudi royal family who admitted committing adultery with a commoner.

The two British nurses were arrested on charges of murdering their colleague Ms Gilford in December at the hospital complex in eastern Saudi Arabia where they worked. Ms Gilford was found stabbed 13 times, bludgeoned and suffocated in her room at the King Fahd military medical complex in Dhahran on 11 December. Ms Parry, 38, and Ms McLauchlan, 31, were charged with her murder the same month.

Yesterday's development came as an appeals court in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was still reviewing the case as part of a lengthy mandatory appeals process. The procedure would involve a decision by yet another court and by King Fahd. There was no word from Saudi authorities on the case.

But the parents of, and British lawyers for, Ms McLauchlan and Ms Parry said yesterday that they were "surprised and shocked" that the court had upheld a conviction based on confessions which were later withdrawn.

"Not one shred of evidence against either nurse has been heard in court. They have not had a trial, we just find it absolutely unbelievable," said Stan McLauchlan, Lucille's father.