RIYADH (AFP) — A Saudi woman sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes despite being gang raped has vowed to challenge the ruling in a case that has received wide publicity, embarrassing the Saudi government.
The case "sums up the major problems that the Saudi judiciary faces," said the young woman's lawyer, Abdurrahman al-Lahem.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, applies a rigorous doctrine of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. It imposes strict segregation of the sexes and a host of restrictions on women, who may not mix with men other than relatives and must cover from head to toe in public.
The 19-year-old's identity has not been revealed but she has become known as "Qatif girl," after the Shiite-populated area of Al-Qatif in the Eastern Province she hails from.
After the rape in October 2006, she was sentenced to 90 lashes for having been in a car with a man who is not a relative.
The Higher Judicial Council granted a retrial but, on November 14, a court toughened her sentence to six months in jail and 200 lashes.
The judges decided to punish the woman further for "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media," a court source told the English-language daily Arab News.
The court also revoked the licence of Lahem, a leading human rights activist. He has also been summoned by the justice ministry to appear before a disciplinary panel next month.
In the court's view, the girl, who was 18 at the time of the incident, was guilty because she was in the company of a male stranger who apparently had pictures of her she wanted to take back.
Both were abducted and sexually assaulted by a gang of seven men, newspapers said.
The court's "argument was that it was the girl's fault in the first place that (the rape) happened and none of that would have have happened if she had not met up with the non-related male friend," Lahem told Arab News.
The young woman belongs to Saudi Arabia's minority Shiite community, while the rapists are Sunni.
The men were initially sentenced to one to five years in jail, but those terms were also toughened last week 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 Arab News they would appeal, even though the judge had warned that the sentence could be increased if she loses the appeal.
The justice ministry noted that the law gives the right of appeal, but warned that "resorting to the media, which do not do justice or grant a right," has a "negative effect on the other parties in the case."
The punishment of the rape victim has been criticised in the United States and elsewhere.
Fran Townsend, US President George W. Bush's advisor on domestic security and anti-terrorism, described the case as "absolutely reprehensible."
"I just don't think there's any explaining it or justifying it," she told CNN television on Tuesday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed the ruling 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."
Lahem said the moves against him "contradict King Abdullah's quest to introduce reform, especially in the justice system."
Last month, the king approved a new body of laws regulating the judicial system in Saudi Arabia, which rules on the basis of sharia, or Islamic law.
Democratic presidential hopefuls in the US also expressed outrage at the sentencing Wednesday and criticized the White House response to the incident.
"This is an outrage," front-runner Hillary Clinton said in a statement, condemning the Bush administration for declining to call for a reversal of the sentence, on the grounds that it was an internal matter for its Saudi ally.
"I urge President Bush to call on King Abdullah to cancel the ruling and drop all charges against this woman. As president I will once again make human rights an American priority around the world," Clinton said.
On Tuesday, the State Department voiced "astonishment" at the sentence, but stopped short of calling for it to be changed.
Asked if the US government was reluctant to condemn an important Arab ally ahead of a conference aimed at reviving Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "No, that's not it at all.
"These kinds of decisions are going to have to be decisions that the people of that country -- in this case, Saudi Arabia -- are going to have to take for themselves," he said.
Clinton's top rival Barack Obama had raised the issue in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday.
"That the victim was sentenced at all is unjust, but that the court doubled the sentence because of efforts to call attention to the ruling is beyond unjust," Obama wrote.
"I strongly urge the Department of State to condemn this ruling.
Another 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joseph Biden, co-author of a bill mandating an international strategy against gender-based violence, also condemned the sentence saying he was "outraged" by the decision.
Former vice presidential nominee and 2008 candidate John Edwards branded the sentence an "appalling breach of the most fundamental human rights."
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