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Report: Saudi king pardons rape victim

| Monday, Dec. 17, 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pardoned a female rape victim who had been sentenced to 200 lashes for being alone with a man at the time of the attack who was not related to her, a Saudi newspaper reported today.

The case had sparked international outcry. In a rare criticism of its Mideast ally, the White House had expressed its "astonishment" over the woman's sentence. Canada called it barbaric.

Saudi Justice Minister Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Sheik told al-Jazirah newspaper that the pardon does not mean the king doubted the country's judges, but instead acted in the "interests of the people."

"The king always looks into alleviating the suffering of the citizens when he becomes sure that these verdicts will leave psychological effects on the convicted people, though he is convinced and sure that the verdicts were fair," al-Jazirah quoted al-Sheik as saying.

The victim in the case, known only as the "Girl of Qatif" after her hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia, was in a car with a high school friend in 2006 when they were attacked and raped by seven men.

She initially was sentenced in November 2006 to several months in prison and 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man with whom she was neither related nor married, a violation of the kingdom's strict segregation of the sexes.

The woman, who was 19 at the time of the rape, has said she met the man to retrieve a picture of herself from him because she had recently married.

The court more than doubled the sentence last month to 200 lashes and six months prison in response to her appeal.

President Bush expressed anger at the sentence earlier this month, saying he wondered how he would react if it had been one of his daughters. But he said he had not made his views known directly to the Saudi king, a U.S. ally.

The Justice Ministry has defended the sentence, saying the girl was having an illicit affair with the man.

Al-Sheik told al-Jazirah newspaper Monday that the king was the only official who could issue a pardon, and he did so despite the government's view that the Saudi legal system was "honest" and "fair."

"The king's order consolidates and confirms what is known about the Islamic courts," said al-Sheik. "Efficient judges look into different cases and issue their just verdicts and those convicted have the right to appeal."

The seven men who were convicted of raping both the girl and the man were initially sentenced to jail terms from 10 months to five years. Their sentences were increased to between two and nine years after the appeal.

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