RIYADH (AFP) — Saudi Arabia has launched a public relations offensive to improve its image at an OPEC summit here, but its efforts have been overshadowed by a court case in which a gang rape victim was sentenced to 200 lashes.
The ultra-conservative kingdom has spent months organising the meeting, at which heads of state from the 12 members of the oil producers' cartel are expected on Saturday for two days of talks.
"We wanted to make the press facilities even more impressive than the G7," a top organiser told AFP, referring to the regular summits attended by the leaders of the world's richest economies.
"We've spent four months working on this."
Foreign visitors have been treated to lavish dinners, guided tours of sights and industrial facilities, and are being looked after by a highly qualified team of attentive, smiling press officers.
But since Thursday, when most visitors arrived, eye-catching reports in the local English-language newspapers have highlighted the oppressive side of the regime that gives the kingdom a bad press abroad.
On Wednesday, a court sentenced a 19-year-old woman who was gang-raped by six armed attackers to 200 lashes and six months in jail.
The woman was initially ordered to undergo 90 lashes for "being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the rape," the Arab News reported.
The tougher sentence was handed down after Saudi Arabia's Higher Judicial Council ordered a retrial after an appeal and a court in the eastern town of Al-Qatif more than doubled the number of lashes to 200.
A court source told the paper that the judges had decided to punish the woman further for "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media."
Saudi Arabia enforces a strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism and forbids unrelated men and women from associating with each other, bans women from driving and requires them to cover head-to-toe in public.
Her assailants, six Saudi men, were initially sentenced to between one and five years in jail for the rape. Their sentences were stiffened to between two and nine years in prison, but they escaped the death penalty.
Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking can all carry the death penalty in the kingdom, with offenders beheaded in public by a swordsman.
A toll compiled by AFP from official reports puts the number of people beheaded in the kingdom this year at 147, a record for recent years.
Inside the luxury hotels where delegates are being housed for the summit, the tone is friendly, open and international, with press officers handpicked from universities in the United States, Europe and Asia and Starbucks coffee on hand.
"The event will ... present a wonderful opportunity for the world's media to gain first-hand experience of Saudi Arabia," King Abdullah was quoted as saying by the OPEC Summit News, an official daily newsletter.
Ibrahim al-Muhanna, an advisor to the Saudi oil minister, said the event was being used to spread a positive message about the kingdom, which said last year for the first time it wanted to attracted non-Muslim foreign tourists.
"Saudi Arabia is open to the media. Our choice of inviting international media to this event is that we no longer want to wait for the media to come to us. We decided to take a proactive attitude," Muhanna told the summit newsletter.
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