Saudi gang-rape victim pardoned after outcry

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The Independent Online

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has pardoned the teenage victim of a gang rape who was sentenced to 200 lashes and jailed for six months in a case that caused an international outcry.

The intercession by the monarch, reported in the Saudi media yesterday, came on the first day of the haj pilgrimage and as the kingdom's Muslims prepared to celebrate the Eid al-Adha festival, which starts tomorrow and is traditionally a time for royal pardons.

The Justice minister, Abdullah bin Mohammad al-Sheikh, did not confirm whether the pardon had been issued but told the newspaper al-Jazirah: "The King always looks into alleviating the suffering of the citizens when he becomes sure these verdicts will leave psychological effects on the convicted people, though he is convinced and sure the verdicts were fair."

The rape victim, who was 18 at the time, was attacked last year when she met a high school friend in his car to retrieve a picture of herself from him because she had recently married. Two men, armed with knives, got into their car and drove to a secluded spot where five others waited. The woman and her companion were then both raped.

Despite her ordeal, the woman was punished because she was alone in a car with a man who was not a close relative. The victim, identified only as the "Qatif Girl" after her home town, was initially sentenced to 90 lashes. When she appealed, the court said her punishment should be raised to a six-month jail term and 200 lashes because of "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media".

The woman's companion was sentenced to 90 lashes. It is not known if his sentence was also lifted. The rapists were each jailed for between two and nine years.

If confirmed, the pardon would represent a rare occasion where a Saudi ruler has publicly challenged the kingdom's hardline clerics, who have wide powers in society, according to a traditional pact with the royal family. Clerics of Wahhabi Islam dominate the justice system which the King has said he wants to reform.

The case has embarrassed Saudi Arabia and provoked soul-searching among columnists about the country's international image. The White House called the court ruling "outrageous", while Canada said the girl's punishment was "barbaric". Earlier this month, the US President George Bush said King Abdullah "knows our position loud and clear".

Fawziya al-Oyouni, a Saudi women's rights activist, welcomed the pardon but said it was not enough. "We don't want to rely simply on pardons. We need harsher sentences for guilty parties and we want to feel safe," she said.