Diplomats revealed yesterday that a British doctor had seen the two in jail last week, and their families will leave today to visit them. But if they are found guilty of stabbing, suffocating and beating to death Yvonne Gilford, an Australian nurse who worked with them at the King Fahd military hospital in Dhahran, Saudi law dictates that they should be beheaded with a sword in public - unless they are forgiven by the victim's relatives. A local newspaper reported last week that a Saudi man had pardoned his son's killer as the sword was raised above his neck. The executioner cut off a wisp of the killer's hair and gave it to the father to signify that the murderer had been reborn.
Even if this escape route is not available, however, the British nurses are citizens of a country which, along with the US and other Western nations, is vital to Saudi Arabia's defence. They sell the Saudis the jet fighters, tanks and missiles they believe they need to defend themselves against Iraq, Iran or any other regional nation. European governments may be gutless in their refusal to question the Saudis' appalling record on human rights, but the kingdom's government realises that the beheading of two young British women after a trial that meets none of the international standards of justice would temporarily sever relations with the country which provides some of the most sophisticated warfare technology in Saudi Arabia's armoury.
The stumbling block so far has been Frank Gilford, the murdered woman's brother, who has repeatedly called for the death penalty if the nurses are found guilty. Despite occasional hints of second thoughts, he sought to be declared the guardian of his 85-year-old mother, Muriel, who has Alzheimer's disease and mild dementia, so that he could speak on her behalf as well.
In her first comment, Mrs Gilford told a hearing on Friday that she agreed with her son: "I would say murder the nurses if they murdered my daughter." Later she added: "I would say they can go to hell." Although she wanted Frank to be appointed her guardian, a neutral legal official was named instead.
But Saudi journalists familiar with the case say the Saudi authorities may well ask an Australian court to appoint itself the wali, or guardian, of the murdered nurse - in which case the Australian court could appeal for mercy on the grounds that it long ago banned capital punishment. "In Saudi Arabia, it should be the brother who can relieve the penalty, but lawyers are trying to discredit the dead woman's brother," a Saudi correspondent said. "Saudi Arabia doesn't want to execute British women, although other women have been made to pay the penalty."
The secrecy which pervades the Saudi justice system makes it impossible to know what stage the case has reached. The judges are reported to have reached a verdict and referred it to a higher court, which in the view of some means that they must have found the nurses guilty, but no one is sure.
The basis of all legislation in Saudi Arabia is sharia religious law, which takes its foundations from the Koran, the word of God as passed to the Prophet Mohammed, the sunna - the sayings of the Prophet - the consensus of religious scholars, or ulema, and a system of historical precedents, Qiyas. The death sentence is mandatory for premeditated murder and lesser degrees of murder, as well as apostasy, sabotage, treason, conspiracy, rape or even adultery and robbery with violence. Drug smuggling was added in 1987, after which 68 men were beheaded for drug-related offences in the next six years. A year later, the death penalty was again extended to include "corruption on Earth".
Cases involving the death penalty are initially heard before the general courts. A death sentence will be referred to a court of appeal, then to a Supreme Judicial Council of five judges for review. Ratification comes by royal decree. If this sounds fair, however, Amnesty International points out that there is no bar association in Saudi Arabia, defendants do not have the right to a lawyer present during their trial and many convictions are based on "confessions" exacted under intimidation - precisely what the two British nurses claim happened to them.
However anxious the Saudis are to spare the Britons, they have shown no such compunction with the lives of people from countries, such as Pakistan, which depend on remittances from their nationals working in the kingdom. At least 12 young women have been beheaded in the Gulf in the past 10 years, all but one of them in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty has a record of 69 executions in the kingdom in 1996 and another 83 this year.
Seven Pakistani children, eight women and four men all appear to face the death penalty for allegedly concealing heroin on their bodies when stopped by police at Jeddah airport last January. Amnesty has appealed to the Saudis to clarify the case at once, adding that it does not know whether they have been tried, convicted or sentenced to death - nor where they are imprisoned. There has been no response from the Saudis.
It would also be a mistake to believe that all Saudis wish to be merciful to the Britons. The Saudi journalist familiar with the case - and who, like Frank Gilford, showed a touching faith in Saudi justice - was brutal in his own views. "Why not let them die according to Islamic law if they have committed this crime? If they were Pakistani or Sri Lankan, they would pay the penalty. In Texas, murderers are subjected to the electric chair or injection. What's the difference between electricity and the blade?"