CAIRO — Imagine two Saudis convicted of killing a foreigner in the United States.
If one defendant was ordered to die and the second sent to prison, igniting a public uproar in Saudi Arabia, would President Clinton respond to Saudi pressure and grant clemency to maintain harmony with an important ally?
Perhaps. But would he do so even if he knew he would be seen as soft on crime by a law-and-order-minded U.S. public, and if the victim's only relative was making repeated public calls for the death penalty?
That is roughly the dilemma that Saudi King Fahd and his advisors face in the case of two British nurses convicted in the December murder of an Australian colleague in the eastern city of Dhahran. According to statements by attorneys, one has been given the death sentence and the second is to be imprisoned for eight years and flogged 500 times.
As monarch, Fahd will have to decide whether to sign an execution order.
The case has set into motion a blizzard of outraged demands in Britain for diplomatic action to spare the nurses, culminating in an extraordinary meeting Friday in New York between British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal to discuss the issue.
If Deborah Parry, 39, a native of the south of England, is led out to a public square in a black cloak and decapitated with a single sword blow to the back of her neck--the usual Saudi procedure--it will be the first known case of a Westerner, let alone a Western woman, being put to death under the kingdom's strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law.
Such an event would have shattering repercussions in Saudi Arabia's relationship with Britain, and the kingdom's desire to be seen as a civilized, modern state would undoubtedly suffer in Europe and the United States as well.
Yet Saudi authorities believe in their system and intend to stand by it. They point out that they are far from alone in the use of capital punishment, and they see beheading as a quick and humane death compared with the hanging, electrocution and poison gas used in some Western countries.
"I am very surprised to be asked to comment on a judgment that has not been rendered," the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Algosaibi, said last week. "I was even more surprised when some saw fit to demean our Islamic justice system.
"We're not going to change our system or our religion or our customs to appeal to journalists or to bleeding-heart liberals of the media all over the world," he said in one televised interview.
From the beginning, the Yvonne Gilford murder case has been a hot potato.
Saudi Arabian officials understood that their system would be put under a microscope by the Western world, which they regard as ignorant of and biased against their Islamic beliefs. The case has been so sensitive that the verdict itself was kept under wraps. Although legal sources have been speaking since mid-August of a guilty verdict against both nurses, no decision has been formally announced.
But lawyers in the case revealed last week that Parry faces execution after having been found guilty by the trial panel of murder, while Lucille McLauchlan has been found guilty of a lesser charge of assisting in the crime. Under Saudi law, the death sentence must be confirmed by at least two higher courts before going to the king himself.
In murder cases, death is the requisite sentence if the victim's family demands it. The sentence for McLauchlan, however, was at the judges' discretion. Under Islamic law, her 500 lash strokes should be administered with a bent elbow, should not bruise or break the skin, and normally would be doled out over the course of her jail sentence.
Officials in Britain, Saudi Arabia and Australia are engaged in a delicate minuet to seek an outcome that would take into account the British pleas for mercy, the demand for punishment from Gilford's brother and the Saudis' need to adhere to their own centuries-old, religion-based system of justice.
Did Parry, 39, with the help of McLauchlan, 31, stab, bludgeon and suffocate Gilford, 55, at the King Fahd Military Medical Complex where they all worked and lived? Because the trial was not open to the public, there is no way to independently evaluate the evidence.
Various Saudi newspapers have stated the basic case against the accused. They say that the two women initially confessed to investigators after being photographed by security cameras one day after the murder using the victim's credit cards to get cash from an automated teller machine.
In their confession, according to the published reports, the two said they had been lovers of Gilford and that the murder occurred during an argument on a night of heavy drinking. Adding to suspicions, McLauchlan previously had been accused in her native Scotland of taking the credit card of a terminally ill patient.