nasty saudis flog innocent aussies

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    Fellow inmates flock to watch Australian flogged in Saudi jail ordeal
    By Martin Daley and Cynthia Banham
    March 6 2003
    Two hundred and fifty lashes down, 50 to go, was how Australian Robert Thomas last night described his ordeal in a Saudi Arabian jail.

    The lashes have been given in batches of 50. The next caning could come at any time.

    Mr Thomas's wife, Lorna, a head nurse at the Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz hospital in Bishah, was found guilty of the theft of hospital equipment last year and sentenced by a Saudi court to 16 months and 300 lashes.

    The court found that Mr Thomas, an anaesthetic technician and chief of department at the hospital, should receive the same sentence because he was responsible for his wife's actions.

    Mrs Thomas, who has not admitted to the offences, has now received 200 lashes, but her sentence is being carried out in public. Mr Thomas's beatings are being conducted inside the prison grounds.

    Mr Thomas, 56, from the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, said he had not bled and had remained conscious during the beatings, which have been condemned by the Federal Government as an inhumane form of punishment.

    Mr Thomas, who spoke to the Herald from the office of the prison manager, said the flogging was "not as bad as you would imagine" but his daughter, Sarah Munro, yesterday painted a grim picture of her father's experiences.

    Before they took Mr Thomas to be beaten, she says prison staff and fellow inmates gave him a chance to lessen the pain: convert to Islam. He refused.

    Prisoners and guards gathered to see the flogging. "Because he is a non-Muslim, he gets a huge crowd when he is being flogged because everybody wants to see a non-Muslim getting lashed."

    The Federal Government defended its handling of the case yesterday, with the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, saying embassy staff had been in constant contact with Mr Thomas since his arrest last year.

    Mr Downer said Australian authorities had tried to get Mr Thomas released under a "Ramadan amnesty" but their representations were unsuccessful.

    The floggings were "profoundly degrading", he said. "We are continuing our representations to the Saudi authorities, asking for him to be released."

    The Prime Minister, John Howard, said he was informed about Mr Thomas's flogging by the Saudi authorities only yesterday and said the punishment was "quite appalling".

    The Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, said the Government's response was "inappropriate". "We wouldn't condone it here, and we should have been making much stronger representations to the Saudi Government on his behalf," he said.

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