Stabbing, suffocation and blood money: final act of a drama fit for Hollywood

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IF THE Hollywood script hasn't been written yet, it soon will be. News of the imminent release of Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan from their Saudi Arabian prison cells brings down the curtain on an astonishing drama.

It began in December 1996 with the discovery of the battered, stabbed and suffocated body of Yvonne Gilford, a 55-year-old Australian nurse, in her room at the King Fahd Military Medical Centre in Dhahran.

Within days, Ms Parry, 38, from Alton, Hampshire, and Ms McLauchlan, 32, from Dundee, were arrested after the Saudi authorities claimed they were caught using Ms Gilford's bank card.

The women, also nurses at the centre, were taken into custody and confessions followed soon afterwards. According to the police version, Ms Parry had attacked Ms Gilford, with Ms McLauchlan's help, after she ended a lesbian affair with the Australian.

It quickly emerged, however, that the confessions had been extracted after days of intimidation and the threat of sexual and physical violence. As soon as they could, through their families and their lawyer, the charismatic Saudi Salah al- Hejailan, the women protested their innocence.

Mr Hejailan, an adviser to the Saudi government, knew that the women could face beheading if found guilty by the Saudi courts under Sharia law. His first priority, therefore, was to persuade Ms Gilford's brother, Frank, a no-nonsense Australian, to waive his automatic right to demand the death penalty - but Mr Gilford refused.

Under Saudi law, Mr Hejailan was then able to offer Mr Gilford a sum of "blood money" to waive his right. Mr Gilford suddenly became interested. Months of acrimonious negotiation and brinkmanship ensued until a figure of pounds 770,000 was agreed upon, much of the cash being dedicated to a new hospital wing in Ms Gilford's name in Adelaide. It is thought most of the money was paid by British companies with interests in Saudi Arabia.

Once the blood money was agreed upon, the women could not be executed. However, it did not stop the courts finding Ms McLauchlan guilty and sentencing her to eight years and 500 lashes. No sentence was ever publicly passed on Ms Parry but if it had, it was expected to have been much worse.

Both women suffered terribly in the women's prison in Dammam. Each endured physical illness and terrible depression. There was particular concern for Ms McLauchlan's mental health, but that was given a boost when, last November, she was allowed to leave prison to be married in a Saudi courtroom to her fiance, Grant Ferrie, 30.

That was the first sign of a softening by the Saudi authorities, who were worried about the strains the issue was putting on relations with Britain. Then, last month, The Independent revealed that the women's cases had been taken out of the courts and into the hands of the Ministry of the Interior - headed by the king's brother, Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz.

Saudi sources said the King wanted to intervene on humanitarian grounds.