The case of two British nurses charged with murder in Saudi Arabia is becoming the latest collision between between Western and non-Western concepts of law and punishment.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is trying to persuade the Saudi government that a sentence of 500 lashes and eight years in prison announced Tuesday by a Saudi court on a female British nurse is "wholly unacceptable in a modern world."
He has also asked Saudi authorities to clarify what will happen to a second British nurse, also accused of murdering an Australian colleague, and said in some reports to have been sentenced to death by beheading.
Such cases of foreigners tried under laws much different than in their homelands seem to be occurring more frequently as an ever-more-global economy sends workers scurrying around the planet for employment. In 1994 the caning of American Michael Fay in Singapore provoked an outburst in Western countries. The practice of caning is unknown in Western countries.
Amnesty International said Tuesday, "Flogging is cruel and barbaric and it must not be allowed to happen. The victim is given time to recover, then beaten again. They are scarred for life."
The case in Saudi Arabia centers on Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, who were accused of murdering Yvonne Gilford at a hospital in Dharan, near the capital, Riyadh, in December 1996.
Saudi police interrogated the two woman hours after the murder and claimed they had confessed to the crime. Ms. Parry and Ms. McLauchlan later withdrew their handwritten confessions, insisting they had been bullied into signing them.
British Foreign Secretary Cook is having to tread carefully with the Saudi government. Last year Britain sold 2.5 billion ($4 billion) in arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
But he has strong support from human rights groups for his stand against the decision that McLauchlan must be beaten 500 times with a bamboo cane during eight years of imprisonment.
Diplomats in Riyadh say that, from the start, Saudi Arabia has not wanted to see these women found guilty because of the implications for relations with the West. The question now will be how much influence the judiciary has within the Saudi government.
Members of the European Parliament were reported yesterday to be preparing to make appeals to the Saudi authorities on behalf of the nurses.
But Mai Yamani, a Saudi-born Middle East specialist at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, says it is "wrong for Britain to apply Western standards in responding to the laws of Saudi Arabia."
"They are different systems, and the nurses have been treated fairly under Saudi law," she says.
Parry and McLauchlan were tried under sharia, Islamic law that derives its authority from the Koran and from the Prophet Muhammad. They were represented by a Saudi lawyer appointed by the court.
In hearings lasting a total of four months, they were allowed 20 minutes to state their case.
Under sharia, lashes are administered over a period of months by a man holding a copy of the Koran under his arm.
If Parry does receive the death penalty, sharia law calls for beheading in a public place.
In 1980, Saudi authorities publicly beheaded a Saudi princess and her lover who had been found guilty of adultery.
When a British television channel later screened a dramatized documentary depicting the executions, Saudi Arabia complained and threatened to cancel defense contracts with British companies.
Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, said Tuesday that the nurses had recourse to three separate avenues of appeal. In any case, he said, there would be "no question of the death penalty being imposed at any point."
Cook was said by officials to be concerned about the secrecy in which the case will be decided.
Malcolm Downer, Australia's foreign minister, said yesterday that he had been informed by his embassy in Saudi Arabia that no sentence had been delivered in the Parry case.
In London, the Foreign Office said that already this year 107 people, mostly Saudi, Pakistani, or African nationals, had been beheaded in Saudi Arabia. One of them was an African woman. No Westerner has been beheaded for several decades, and it is believed no European woman has ever been executed in Saudi Arabia.
The case has been complicated by a sharia law provision that the nearest relative of a murder victim may insist on the death sentence being carried out. Frank Gilford, the murdered nurse's brother, who lives in Australia, so far has refused to waive his right to insist on a death penalty. At one point in the case Mr Gilford said: "If a dog goes out and kills sheep, what do you do with it? You put it down so it cannot do it again."
Reuters reported yesterday that shares in British Aerospace dropped on the London stock exchange, due to worries that its business in Saudi Arabia may suffer from any diplomatic fallout. The company supplies Tornado fighters to Saudi Arabia through a multibillion-dollar contract that provides for 400,000 barrels of Saudi oil a day to be supplied to Britain.