Two English nurses accused of murdering an Australian colleague in Saudi Arabia appear to be at risk of being publicly beheaded if a sharia (Islamic) court finds them guilty.
Their case is straining relations between London and Riyadh and pointing up sharp contrasts between Western-style justice and its Saudi counterpart.
Shortly before Christmas, Saudi Arabian newspapers reported that Deborah Kim Parry and Lucille Mclauchlan had confessed to murdering fellow nurse Yvonne Gilford at the King Fahd military medical complex in Dhahran on Dec. 11.
But this past Saturday, one of the two nurses' lawyers said they had retracted their confessions.
Salah al-Hejailan, head of a Saudi Arabian law firm, urged the Saudi authorities to appoint an independent prosecutor to review the police evidence against the women. He said Ms. Parry and Ms. Mclauchlan denied being involved in Gilford's death.
Another lawyer, Michael Dark, a British ex-patriate who lives and works in Saudi Arabia, said the nurses had made false confessions in the hope they would be sent home.
"They understood that if they made these written confessions or admissions, the matter could be resolved very quickly, and that they would not be required to go through the legal process here, and be sent home," Mr. Dark said.
Over the past two weeks the families of the two accused have expressed fears, widely reported in the British media, that the women would be denied justice and put to death by the sword in a public square, in accord with Saudi custom.
There is considerable disagreement over how sharia law will be applied in this case. William Patey, Britain's consul-general in Riyadh, has said strict interpretation of sharia might make the death sentence mandatory. Mr. Hejailan, however, has said the case might not result in capital punishment.
A different system of justice
Sharia law is based on the Koran, the sacred book of Islam. Courts in Saudi Arabia do not allow lawyers to plead for the accused, but counselors may be allowed to offer "advice." That is the role the nurses' three-man legal team is now playing. Hearings are held before three qadis or judges, who decide the issue. There is no jury.
If a court finds anyone guilty of a capital offense, and the death penalty is ordered, he or she is usually executed in the grounds of a mosque the following Friday, after morning prayers.
There were 182 public executions in Saudi Arabia in 1996, according to reports in Saudi newspapers.
Many Asians and Africans have been executed for murder, but so far capital punishment has never been enforced against a European.
The facts surrounding the murder case have been muddied by inflammatory reporting in the British media and apparently officially sanctioned police leaks in the Saudi press stating flatly that the two women are guilty of murder.
British media have concentrated on the fact that the two women had been questioned by police for five days without the presence of a lawyer.
Hejailan says that under sharia a victim's family can ask for a death sentence to be dropped in return for a financial settlement, referred to as "blood money." Hejailan says that if the case does go to trial he will make a direct appeal to the deceased nurse's family not to ask for the death penalty.
Government silence, media hype
There are close commercial ties between Britain and Saudi Arabia, and for economic reasons London would be reluctant to seek to interfere in the processes of Saudi law. For this reason the British government has been silent on the case.
But the case has been attracting huge interest in the British media, with several newspapers drawing attention to the radical differences between the British and Saudi justice systems. Murder cases in Britain are held before a judge and jury. There is no death penalty.
British newspaper coverage prompted Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, to publicly state: "The case will be conducted thoroughly and fairly. Even if found guilty the death sentence is not automatic."
While the ambassador was issuing his statement, newspapers in Saudi Arabia were openly reporting apparently damning evidence against the two British nurses. Al-Hayat newspaper, quoting "police sources," said they had taunted Gilford as an older woman incapable of doing her job properly. It said one of the Britons had hit her with a teapot, then stabbed her.
On Dec. 31, the official Saudi news agency reported that the two women had confessed to killing Gilford during "a personal dispute." Hejailan said Saudi Arabian police evidence against the women appeared to be based on camera surveillance. He said the police accused the two women of using Gilford's credit card to take money from her bank account, but the nurses deny using the card.
Neither the accused nor the outside world are likely to be given advance warning of when the trial will be held. The two nurses are likely to be awakened one morning and taken to court.