Lawyers for Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah Parry expect the women to be freed "very soon" as a result of moves that will allow a humanitarian intervention by King Fahd.
The Independent has learned that responsibility for the case against the women was taken away from the court of cassation three weeks ago and handed over to the ministry of the interior, headed by the king's brother, Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz.
He will make a recommendation to King Fahd which is expected to be favourable. Because the prisoners are women, because no other Saudis were involved in the case and because the matter is diplomatically sensitive, it is understood that the prince's recommendation will be for the women's sentences to be fixed at about the amount of time they have already served.
They are accused of murdering Yvonne Gilford, 55, an Australian colleague, at the King Fahd Military Medical Centre in Dammam in December 1996. They have always protested their innocence. The court found Ms McLauchlan, 32, guilty and sentenced her to eight years in prison and 500 lashes but no verdict has yet been passed on Ms Parry, 40. Under Saudi law, they could have been beheaded.
Responsibility for the case passed to the ministry of the interior because Ms Gilford's brother, Frank Gilford, signed a death penalty waiver on the promise of pounds 730,000 in "blood money". That took the matter away from the private domain of the families involved and into the public domain of the Saudi administration.
"That meant the case was passed to the ministry and it is being considered before a recommendation will be made to the highest authorities," said Salah al-Hejailan, the nurses' lawyer in Saudi Arabia.
"The maximum penalty the ministry could recommend would be five years but in this case it will be much less. I understand that because of the unusual circumstances of the case, because they are women, because Miss Parry is unwell and because no Saudis were involved, the sentence on both will be around one year. They will be going home very soon."
On Saturday, Grant Ferrie, who married Ms McLauchlan in prison last year, and Jonathan Ashbee, brother-in-law of Miss Parry, flew to Saudi. Last night, the women's families and British lawyers said they had heard nothing about them being sent home.
As reported in the Independent on Sunday, the expected conclusion of the affair has been achieved without paying the blood money to Mr Gilford. Mr Hejailan has refused to authorise its release, arguing that the amount is too high. Mr Gilford has offered to donate much of it to the building of a hospital department in his sister's name and expects to keep only pounds 50,000 for himself.
However, Mr Hejailan said he had told Mr Gilford he deserved only half of it. "I believe the other half should go to the welfare of the girls," he said.Reuse content