Saudi king pardons rape victim
By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pardoned the victim of a gang-rape whose sentencing to 200 lashes caused an international outcry, officials said on Monday.
The victim's husband welcomed the news. "I'm happy and my wife is happy and it will of course help lift some of her psychological and social suffering," he told Reuters. "We thank the king for his generous attention and fatherly spirit."
The 19-year-old Shi'ite woman was abducted and raped along with a male companion by seven men last year.
Ruling according to the strict Saudi reading of Islamic law, a court sentenced the woman to 90 lashes for being alone with an unrelated man and the rapists to jail terms of up to five years.
The Supreme Judicial Council last month increased the sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison and ordered the rapists to serve between two years and nine years in prison.
The royal decree appeared to be upholding the original guilty verdict against the woman.
"The crime against this woman reached a disturbing level of brutality," the king said in the decree, according to excerpts read by Justice Minister Abdullah bin Mohammad al-Sheikh in a telephone interview with the state-run television.
"Because the woman and that (man) who was with her had suffered a level of torture and distress that was by itself enough to discipline them ... We would like you to fold the part of the case relevant to the two aforementioned."
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino welcomed the move: "This is a decision that King Abdullah needed to make on behalf of Saudi Arabia, and we think it was the right one."
SIGNAL TO JUDGES
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Washington hoped the pardon would send a signal to the Saudi judicial system.
"We would like to not see a repeat of cases like this. If the king's decision has an impact of that kind on the thinking of those in the Saudi judicial system, I think that would be a good thing," Casey told reporters.
U.S. President George W. Bush said this month that King Abdullah "knows our position loud and clear" on the case. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in Washington last month he hoped the ruling would be changed.
Al-Jazirah newspaper quoted Sheikh as saying the king had the right to issue a pardon in the "public interest," though he defended the legal system's "integrity, justice and transparency."
Zoheir al-Harthy, spokesman for the official Human Rights Commission, told Reuters the decision to issue the pardon was taken last week in response to the controversy over the case.
The king usually issues amnesties to mark the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival which begins on Wednesday.
The pardon represents a rare occasion where Saudi rulers have appeared to challenge publicly the country's hardline clerics, who have wide powers in society according to a traditional pact with the Saudi royal family.
Clerics of Wahhabi Islam dominate the justice system which King Abdullah said in October he wanted to reform.
Criticising the religion-based judiciary is sensitive but the case became a national embarrassment, provoking soul-searching among columnists over the kingdom's image.
Fawziya al-Oyouni, a women's rights activist, welcomed the report but noted it implied the woman was still in the wrong.
"We need harsher sentences for the guilty parties, and we want to feel safe," she said.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond, editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)