RIYADH (AFP) — A woman in Saudi Arabia sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes despite being gang raped has confessed to adultery, the justice ministry said on Saturday as it tried to fend off mounting criticism.
Despite being sexually assaulted by seven men who kidnapped her with a male companion at knife-point, the unidentified 19 year-old woman was sentenced in November 2006 to 90 lashes.
The judge sentenced her for being in a car with a man who was not her relative, a taboo in the conservative Muslim kingdom which imposes strict segregation of the sexes.
But her story hit international headlines last week when her sentence was increased to six months in jail and 200 lashes after she spoke to the media.
The justice ministry said in a statement carried by the official SPA news agency that the woman had owned up to having an extramarital affair with the man in the car.
"She admitted to ... exchanging sinful relations," the statement said, adding the woman was in state of undress with the man in the car before the attack took place.
The woman and her alleged lover remained quiet about the attack, which was only reported to the authorities several months later when the woman's husband received an e-mail from an unidentified source informing him of the affair.
"She admitted to what happened and the husband then reported the incident three months after it happened," the justice ministry said, adding it wanted to correct the "largely incorrect" details published in the media about the case.
The ministry also stressed the Saudi judicial system was based on Islamic law derived from the holy Koran and that a court ruling in the kingdom was only made after both sides in a case are given a fair and balanced hearing.
The men were initially sentenced to one to five years in jail, but those terms were also toughened on appeal to between two and nine years.
A rape conviction carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but the court did not impose it due to the "lack of witnesses" and the "absence of confessions," the justice ministry said on Tuesday.
The woman's husband told local media that they would appeal, even though the judge had warned that the sentence could be increased again if she loses the appeal.
The justice ministry noted that the law gives the right of appeal, but warned that "resorting to the media" could have "a negative effect on the other parties in the case."
The court dealing with the case revoked the licence of the woman's lawyer, who has also been summoned by the justice ministry to appear before a disciplinary panel next month.
New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed the ruling against the woman and urged King Abdullah to "void the verdict and drop all charges against the rape victim and to order the court to end its harassment of her lawyer."
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