Saudi nurses: `If they weren't British they wouldn't be free'

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SAUDI newspaper readers looked in vain yesterday for reports of the release of Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan. Only the briefest of paragraphs in the English-language Arab News - its publication described as an "oversight" by one Saudi government official during the afternoon - mentioned the release of the two British nurses.

"The authorities don't want us to talk about this," a Saudi oil engineer remarked cynically. "And of course, everyone is discussing it - and some people are furious."

Among them is a Saudi journalist who - like all those citizens of the Kingdom interviewed by The Independent yesterday - pleaded not to be identified. "I'm a reasonable person and I don't like capital punishment," he said.

"But if these women hadn't been British, do you think they would have got away with this? If they had been Saudi women, or Sri Lankan or Pakistani, they would have been beheaded.

"And now these women are getting thousands and thousands of dollars from newspapers in your country. I hear one of them is going to get pounds 100,000. Is this true? I would like to have pounds 100,000. But I can't make that much - because I haven't murdered anyone."

Just as most Britons appear to believe that the nurses are innocent, Saudis are convinced that Parry and McLauchlan are murderers who struck lucky. Not a soul in the Kingdom doubts the Saudi justice system. A middle- aged housewife in Jeddah commented bitterly about her own government as well as the nurses. "I think they should have had at least life in prison," she said.

"I don't think their punishment was too harsh - it's who is doing the punishment that's the big question; if we had a democratic government, it wouldn't be necessary to have violent punishments. When you are the biggest thief in the land and you chop off the hands of a thief who has stolen a few riyals, this is not Islam. But the nurses were released because of their nationality."

Who could doubt it? As the Saudi woman - whose comment about "the biggest thief in the land" was clearly referring to King Fahd - said: "If the nurses had been Indians, or Pakistanis, or other women from what you people call the Third World, they would have been punished. If a Saudi does something wrong in England, you punish him. So why should we not do the same here? Their release was against the law, against Sharia [holy law] and against our religion. Our government acted very stupidly."

A Saudi editor took a less emotional view: "There is much talk of double standards among the people in Riyadh. But we applied the letter of the law ... now the nurses are back in Britain and are making money - British journalism has exhibited its beastly instincts again."

But if the nurses are as innocent as they claim, another Saudi businessman asked yesterday: "Who do they think did kill Nurse Gilford?"

An interesting question. Another Briton? Or a Saudi perhaps? Of course, we shall never know.