Whitehall sources said yesterday that the Saudi authorities have agreed to a Foreign Office request for Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan to be seen by a British doctor because of their deteriorating physical and mental condition.
However, while hopes were raised that their "harsh and spartan" treatment at a women's prison in Damman might improve, their legal position remained confused. Their lawyers were told last week that their case had been referred to a higher court, the Cassation Court, a form of appeal court, but they were not told why and they have not been told whether the Saudi court has reached a verdict.
Ms Parry, 38, from Alton, Hampshire, and 31-year-old Ms McLauchlan, from Dundee, are said to be suffering from a number of ailments because of their incarceration in poor conditions since December. They were arrested after Yvonne Gilford, 55, was found stabbed to death at the King Fahd medical complex at Dhahran.
Informed sources state that the medical checks may be the precursor to the two women being freed following a show of clemency by the Saudi monarch.
If they have been found guilty of murder then the two women face possible death by beheading, whereas another verdict, approximating to manslaughter under British law, would carry a sentence of around five years. However, authorities in Riyadh, according to a senior source, are desperately keen to avoid capital punishment. A jail sentence could lead to the women being freed on medical grounds to receive treatment in Britain.
At the moment, however, neither their lawyers nor the Foreign Office know why their case has been referred to the Cassation Court.
Rodger Pannone, representing Miss Parry, said: "It could be because the court has found them guilty, moving the case automatically one step along the process, or it could be that the judges have referred the case for clarification on a point of law."
"Neither we nor the Foreign Office have been informed of a verdict."
If the case has been referred for clarification, the most likely reason is for the higher court, which is presided over by five judges, to examine an Australian court ruling on the case. Under Saudi law, all members of a victim's family have the right to call for the death penalty, but they must be unanimous.
The Australian court ruled two weeks ago that Ms Gilford's mother may not be well enough to make such a decision, as she is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. That means that calls for the death penalty by Ms Gilford's brother, Frank, may not be enough in themselves for the court to allow the women to be beheaded.
Members of the charged nurses' families met lawyers and Foreign Office officials in Manchester yesterday but a Foreign Office spokesman said they had no more information about the reason for the referral to the Cassation Court.
A spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy said she was unable to confirm or deny that the case had been referred to the Cassation Court. Before the women can be executed, the case must climb to a third court, the Higher Judicial Council, before being put before King Fahd for his approval. The whole process could take up to two years.