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Saudi pardon for rape victim

Riyadh, Dec. 17 (Reuters): Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has pardoned the victim of a gangrape whose sentencing to 200 lashes caused an international outcry, a Saudi newspaper said today.

The victim’s husband welcomed the news, but said he had not been informed officially of the pardon decree.

“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 Shia woman was abducted and raped along with a male companion by seven men last year in a case that piled international pressure on the government to step in.

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.

By pardoning the woman, the royal decree appears to be upholding the original guilty verdict. 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.”

President George W. Bush said earlier this month that King Abdullah “knows our position loud and clear” on the case, and Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said in Washington last month he hoped the ruling would be changed.”

Al-Jazirah newspaper cited justice minister Abdullah bin Mohammad al-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”.

The minister did not confirm that the pardon, reported from unnamed sources, had been issued but the newspaper is close to the religious establishment that controls the Justice Ministry.

The king usually issues amnesties to mark the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival which begins on Wednesday.

If confirmed, the pardon would represent a rare occasion where Saudi rulers have appeared to publicly challenge the country's hardline clerics.

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