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Journalist describes a breakthrough in Saudi law with the appearance in court of defence lawyers of two British nurses on trial for the murder of Yvonne Gilford

RICHARD ACKLAND: Well, the dramatic twists and turns in the trial of two British women accused of killing Australian nurse, Yvonne Gilford, continue over the weekend. An injunction in the South Australian Supreme Court effectively silenced Yvonne's brother, Frank, from calling for their execution. As we know, if Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah Parry are found guilty under Islamic law, they could face a public be-heading, unless Gilford and his family grant clemency. Of course, Frank Gilford has refused to do so and the defence attempted a last ditch attempt to prove Yvonne and Frank's mother mentally unfit to make such a decision.

But the court is closed and the two British nurses now face an agonising week as they await the judge's verdict. Kathleen Evans is a Saudi specialist who's been covering the case for the Guardian newspaper since the nurses were arrested last December, and she joins us now from her London office.

Kathleen, good morning and welcome to Radio National.

KATHLEEN EVANS: Good morning, Richard.

RICHARD ACKLAND: This has been quite an unusual case for the Saudi justice system, hasn't it?

KATHLEEN EVANS: It's been completely unprecedented. The nurses' case has broken through the barrier of allowing defence lawyers to be in court. Until now, even those facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia on charges of rape or drug trafficking charges or murder have been ... it's not been allowed that defence lawyers represent them in court. So this is a real breakthrough.

RICHARD ACKLAND: How did breakthrough happen then?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, I think ... it's an awful thing to say, but I think largely because they involve Western women. And of course, you might remember that these are two British women and Britain is Saudi Arabia's second largest supplier of defence equipment. Britain has a huge contract to supply about $20 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia at the moment.

RICHARD ACKLAND: So, the Saudi justice system somehow or other reflects that political implication?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, it certainly does because only today they executed an Indian drug trafficker who was not represented in court by a lawyer. There are no mitigating circumstances allowed in Saudi Arabian courts. It is very much a confession-based system. So, the fact that these two nurses have confessed, and yet seem likely to get off the charge or to face a guilty verdict with clemency, if Mr Frank Gilford can be removed from the case, is going to be unprecedented, and perhaps leave Saudi Arabia open to the charge that its justice system is somewhat colour-based.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Yes, it really went beyond the guilt or innocence of these women to this focus on the Gilford's right to call for clemency or execution?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, there are two major problems in the case. Number one is the fact that the two girls have confessed, not only to the police but to three judges who are now trying them - the same three judges who took their confessions on Christmas Eve last year are now trying them. The second major problem is Frank Gilford, and that's where the proceedings in Australia become very, very important, because as you know, Richard, the Islamic law which is applied in Saudi Arabia, gives the right of the victims of the relatives to decide the punishment in any murder case.

RICHARD ACKLAND: So those documents from the South Australian Supreme Court, the orders of the South Australian Supreme Court, I take it then were submitted and received by the Saudi court. What weight did the Saudi court give those rulings from South Australia?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, the problem is for the defence case at the moment is that the Australian proceedings are only half way through. What the families of the nurses wanted to achieve in Australia ... there were a number of steps: firstly, it was to get Mrs Gilford, an elderly lady who I understand is suffering some mental incompetence problems, to get her declared that she cannot give an opinion in this case.

The second stage was to declare Frank Gilford an unfit person to give his opinion on the punishment, on the basis that he had given his opinions prior to the verdict, that he'd asked for their execution. It was supposed then to go on to a third stage to get the public advocate in Australia to get appointed as the legal guardian of Yvonne Gilford. The public advocate would then represent her interests in the case, instead of the family. And according to Australian law, I understand the death penalty is forbidden and, therefore, there would have been ... the pathway would have been cleared for an appeal for clemency. But at the moment, the proceedings are only half way through and all that Frank has suffered at the moment is an injunction on him giving his opinion.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Has the decision-making process in the Saudi court then been reserved or stayed pending further proceedings in South Australia? Is that the position?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, unfortunately, much to the dismay of the relatives of the nurses, the judge decided Sunday to deliberate on his verdict, that he accepted the half-way step that Mrs Gilford was incompetent, but that still threw the ball back into Frank's court. But the judge has unexpectedly decided to go off and deliberate on his verdict, and the verdict is expected next Sunday. So, it's the sort of ... the Australian proceedings have left the Saudi proceedings in somewhat of a limbo, somewhat of a hiatus.

RICHARD ACKLAND: But it sounds as though the Saudis aren't really wanting to wait for the South Australian court to complete the proceedings.

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, one can only hope, for the sake of the nurses, that that is not correct, that they will take into account that Mr Gilford is deemed to be a prejudicial witness as the defence claim, and that they may take that into account into their deliberations. But at the moment it's not known, and also the defence lawyers are complaining that they have failed to get into court any other evidence that they believe could clear the nurses.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Let's assume that clemency is ... you know, that the Gilfords or the public advocate is appointed and clemency is submitted to the Saudi court. What happens then? Are the accused nurses just released?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, that clears the path for clemency, which is what both the Saudi Government and the British Government are most interested in. Nobody believes that these girls are going to be executed, the art of the exercise is to provide that path to clemency. And consensus is growing amongst Saudi experts here is that the girls might be declared guilty, but that there will be an appeal for clemency which will allow them to do a short prison sentence and hopefully be home in January 98.

RICHARD ACKLAND: But I take it the other sort of stumbling block, Kathleen, is these confessions. How hard has it been for their lawyers to shift significance away from those confessions?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Extremely difficult because, as I said, the same three judges who took those confessions are now trying them. And there's also been an enormous political problem on that issue because the clerics in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim clergymen, who are the backbone of the Saudi royal family are very, very powerful and they are digging their heels in and saying: 'Why we should we accept to invalidate these confessions?' And the clergymen are the political force in Saudi Arabia that endorses the right of the royal family to govern Saudi Arabia.

RICHARD ACKLAND: So there's no consideration of the confessions being made under duress?

KATHLEEN EVANS: It is not known whether the judges have accepted that evidence of the three nurses who have given statements to their lawyers, and those statements have been provided to the court and they allege some fairly serious accusations of sexual abuse, sexual threats and harassment, but it's not known whether those statements will be taken into account.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Finally, I understand that the defence has also tried to prove that the murder has more to do with loan sharking and this sort of thing in the hospital. What's the background, quickly, to that?

KATHLEEN EVANS: Well, the families are alleging that Yvonne Gilford actually provided interest-free loans to hard-up Filipinos who were waiting for their pay, because pay was two months in arrears in this hospital, which interfered somewhat with the business of some Saudi guards who were guarding the hospital who had some profitable loan business going on. And also there was quite a lot of prostitution going on, because the Filipino nurses couldn't afford to survive until they got paid. So all that evidence which the defence has collected has not yet been allowed into court, much to the changrin, of course, of the defence lawyers.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Yes. Thank you very much, Kathleen Evans; Kathleen Evans from the Guardian in London.