Saudi King Pardons Rape Victim

A Saudi Arabian rape victim charged with jail time and 200 lashes has been pardoned by Saudi King Abdullah. The woman was jailed after being found in a car with a man to whom she was not related.

A group of men pulled her from the car and raped her, before she was arrested.

Once pardoned, the woman was released from jail and returned home to her family, officials say.

The monarch traditionally grants pardons in advance of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday that begins Wednesday. Saudi Arabia's Justice Minister told Al-Jazeera daily newspaper that the king has the "right to overrule court judgements if he considered it benefiting the greater good."

The sentence spurred headlines and criticism from around the world. Human Rights Watch and other foreign observers, including the White House and U.S. presidential contenders Sen. Hilary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, called her punishment and the circumstances surrounding it outrageous.

"The kingdom certainly took a lot of heat," Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist with the Congressional Research Service, told ABC News. "[The pardon] is not surprising in a case where it's so hard to defend what happened. They caved in."

In testimony exclusively obtained by ABC News the young woman described what happened and how she was treated in the months that followed.

"Everyone looks at me as if I'm wrong. I couldn't even continue my studies. I wanted to die. I tried to commit suicide twice," she reportedly said of her emotional state shortly after the attack.

The woman, known anonymously in the Saudi press as "Qatif Girl" for the eastern province town where the crime took place, was originally sentenced to 90 lashes for being in a state of "khalwa" — seclusion with a male who's not a relative.

But the General Court of Qatif increased the punishment after she took her case to the press. Authorities deemed it an "attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media," according to Saudi Arabia's English-language newspaper Arab News.

The seven attackers were convicted of rape and given sentences that ranged from two to nine years in prison, according to Arab News.

A number of Saudi women and activists spoke out against the woman's punishment. The case led to calls for reform and greater individual rights within the Saudi legal system.

Waheja Al-Huwaider, a human rights advocate living in Saudi Arabia, told ABC News that the publicity has been a good thing.

"We are very thankful to this young lady that she decided to go to the media with her case. Because of that and because of her courage — maybe we will have something different than before."

"We don't have any written laws for any kind of crime. [The outcome] depends on the judges and how they see the case," she told ABC News.

Abdullah has already announced a set of revisions to Saudi Arabia's judicial system, which is dominated by strict interpretations of Muslim Shariah.

"This is the time to seriously consider the scope and purpose of our judicial reform," May Dabbagh, a Saudi native and research fellow with the Dubai School of Government, wrote in an editorial.

"There are thousands [if not more] of undocumented stories of injustice in our courts. Not all are as wretched as the fate of the Qatif girl but all are dishearteningly unjust."

Katzman sees legal reform as a challenge across the region. "What we're seeing not only in Saudi but in other Gulf Arab states is they're rapidly modernizing in some areas but the judiciaries tend to remain in the hands of conservative clergy, so legal reform tends to be the slowest," he said.

There were some particularly religious women who supported the court's ruling to punish the victim, Huwaider told ABC News. But a royal pardon was the outcome she expected, as objections to the case spread across the kingdom and over sectarian lines.

"The educated Shia and the Sunni were against it. I think that's really good. It gives good confidence that people can come together and can be cooperating together if there's something wrong going on."

The victim's attorney, human rights lawyer Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, had his license revoked for talking to the press about the Qatif case.

The Saudi Ministry of Justice had accused him of "faulty behaviors [that] contradict the ethics of his profession and violate the provisions of practicing law," a move Lahem interpreted as retaliation for taking on the controversial case.

With additional reporting from Mohamed Kadry.

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