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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saudi Law Falls Under Scrutiny

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- When the body of nurse Yvonne Gilford was found Dec. 11, fear rippled through the walled compounds where foreigners live in Saudi Arabia. The 55-year-old Australian had suffered a grisly death. She had been stabbed four times, beaten with a hammer and suffocated in her bed.

In a country that by world standards is almost crime-free, some wondered if a maniac was on the loose. Or was the murder politically motivated, akin to the bombing of the U.S. military housing complex in nearby Khobar that killed 19 Americans last June?

Few were prepared for the news that Saudi investigators announced 13 days later. They accused two British nurses, saying the pair had confessed after being photographed on a spending spree with the victim's credit cards.

Moreover, the two female colleagues of Gilford would be tried in Saudi Arabia's Islamic courts and could face the punishment routinely meted out to convicted murderers, drug smugglers and other serious offenders: death by public beheading.

Now, Saudi Arabian officials sense that, rather than the suspect nurses, it is their system of law that will be on trial. That system -- Sharia, God's divine law -- is core to the Islamic faith, which has more than 1 billion adherents around the world.

Western perceptions remain largely limited to lurid accounts of its punishments: the beheadings, amputations and stonings. It conjures images of hell-hole jails, cruel torture, barbaric retribution -- all in all, a medieval system unfit for modern society.

Although foreigners from Asia and Africa have been executed for crimes in Saudi Arabia, officials recall no case of a European or American being put to death. Now that McLauchlan and Parry, who are in custody and could not be interviewed, have retracted their confessions with the aid of a Saudi lawyer, supporters are more hopeful they will be found innocent.

There are some Saudis less sanguine about the system. One academic from Riyadh, who has lived abroad, said protections for the accused are scant.

"In this country, there are no lawyers. If I am arrested, the only people I'll see are my jailer and my judge, and God forbid, my executioner."