Thu, Nov 22, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Saudi Arabian court defends sentence against rape victim

AP , RIYADH

Saudi Arabia defended on Tuesday a controversial verdict sentencing a 19-year-old gang rape victim to six months in jail and 200 lashes.

The Shiite Muslim woman had initially been sentenced to 90 lashes after being convicted of violating Saudi Arabia's rigid Shariah Islamic law on segregation of the sexes.

In its decision doubling her sentence last week, the Saudi General Court also roughly doubled prison sentences for the seven men convicted of raping her, Saudi media said.

The upholding of a decision to punish the victim triggered international outcry.

While declining to directly criticize the Saudi Arabia's judiciary, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "I think when you look at the crime and the fact that now the victim is punished, I think that causes a fair degree of surprise and astonishment."

"But it is within the power of the Saudi government to take a look at the verdict and change it," McCormack said.

On Monday, Canada said it would complain to Saudi authorities about the sentence, described as "barbaric" by Jose Verger, the Canadian minister responsible for the status of women.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the verdict "not only sends victims of sexual violence the message that they should not press charges, but in effect offers protection and impunity to the perpetrators."

But the Saudi judiciary stood by its decision on Tuesday.

"The Ministry of Justice welcomes constructive criticism, away from emotions," it said in a statement.

The statement also said that the "charges were proven" against the woman for having been in a car with an unrelated male, and repeated criticism of her lawyer for talking "defiantly" about the judicial system, saying "he has shown ignorance."

Because he reached out to the media, the court has banned lawyer Abdul Rahman al-Lahem from further defending the woman, confiscating his license and summoning him to a disciplinary hearing later this month.

The justice ministry implied the victim's sentence was increased because she had spoken out to the press. "For whoever has an objection on verdicts issued, the system allows to appeal without resorting to the media," said the statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The rape took place last year. The victim has said it occurred as she tried to retrieve her picture from a male high school classmate she used to know. While in a car with the classmate, two assailants commandeered the vehicle and drove them to a secluded area. She said she was raped there by seven men, and her friend was also attacked by three of them.

The case was referred back to the General Court by an appeals court last summer, after the woman's lawyer contested the initial verdict, saying it was too lenient for the rapists and unjust for the victim.

Justice in Saudi Arabia is administered by a system of religious courts according to the kingdom's strict interpretation of Shariah law.

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