Woman who escaped execution denounces Saudis

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The two British nurses charged with murdering their Australian colleague in Saudi Arabia were yesterday visited in prison for the first time by their team of lawyers. Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan face public beheading if they are found guilty of killing Yvonne Gilford.

In an insight into what may be in store for the two women, Monica Hall, an Irish nurse found guilty of murder by a Saudi court in 1986, castigated the fairness of the kingdom's legal system in an exclusive interview yesterday with the Independent on Sunday.

Mrs Hall said she and her former husband were deprived of sleep for more than a week during lengthy interrogations, promised their freedom if they signed false confessions and tried in secret without being permitted to defend themselves. When they retracted their statements - as the Saudi lawyer appointed to represent the British nurses yesterday confirmed they had also done - the Halls were not given another trial, although Islamic law entitled them to one.

Mrs Hall saw numerous parallels with the present case, including being forced to re-enact her alleged crime - the murder of her fellow nurse Helen Feeney. The dead woman's family did not press for her execution or compensation, and she was freed in an amnesty after three years in prison.

Yesterday Ms McLauchlan and Ms Parry were visited by three Saudi lawyers from the firm of their officially appointed lawyer, Salah Hejailan. They were joined by a British solicitor, Michael Dark, who also works for the firm, and had separate meetings with the nurses lasting 45 minutes each. Mr Dark is also the honorary legal adviser to the British ambassador in Saudi Arabia.

One of the legal team, Anwar Bakhurgi, said later: "They were worried like anyone would be in their situation, charged with murder." In Riyadh, Mr Hejailan confirmed that both nurses had withdrawn the confessions they were reported to have made to the Saudi authorities. The women had "good reasons" for the retractions, he said, and he hoped the case would not have to go to trial. He did not elaborate.

Lawson Ross, the British consul from Al Khobar, also saw the two nurses for 10 minutes each. The Foreign Office said it was "pleased" the Saudi authorities had granted Mr Ross access, and hoped "this crucial channel of communication" would continue.

Yvonne Gilford, 55, was found stabbed, smothered and battered to death in her room at the King Fahd Military Centre in Dhahran on 10 December. If the two women are convicted they could be beheaded in public, unless the Australian's family show mercy. It is understood that Mr Hejailan is seeking a written declaration to help to rule out execution.

Interview, page 3; Letter, page 18