Nov. 21, 2007 — -- Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Justice is defending a sentence of 200 lashes for the victim of a gang rape, punished because she was in the car of a male who wasn't a relative when the two were attacked.
In exclusive testimony obtained by ABC News, the young woman told her story of 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 said of her experience just 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" -- retreat with a male who's not a relative.
But the General Court of Qatif increased the punishment to 200 lashes and six months in jail 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 with sentences that ranged from two to nine years in prison, according to Arab News.
In a December 2006 interview in Khobar, Saudi Arabia the woman gave a full account of her testimony to Human Rights Watch, describing the incident as she did before the court. She was meeting a male acquaintance, a former boyfriend, when the attack took place.
"I [was] 19 years old. I had a relationship with someone on the phone. We were both 16. I had never seen him before. I just knew his voice. He started to threaten me, and I got afraid. He threatened to tell my family about the relationship. Because of the threats and fear, I agreed to give him a photo of myself," she recounted.
"A few months [later], I asked him for the photo back but he refused. I had gotten married to another man. He said, 'I'll give you the photo on the condition that you come out with me in my car.' I told him we could meet at a souk [market[ near my neighborhood city plaza in Qatif.
"He started to drive me home. …We were 15 minutes from my house. I told him that I was afraid and that he should speed up. We were about to turn the corner to my house when they [another car] stopped right in front of our car. Two people got out of their car and stood on either side of our car. They man on my side had a knife. They tried to open our door. I told the individual with me not to open the door, but he did. He let them come in. I screamed.
"One of the men brought a knife to my throat. They told me not to speak. They pushed us to the back of the car and started driving. We drove a lot, but I didn't see anything since my head was forced down."
"They took us to an area … with lots of palm trees. No one was there. If you kill someone there, no one would know about it. They took out the man with me, and I stayed in the car. I was so afraid. They forced me out of the car. They pushed me really hard ... took me to a dark place. Then two men came in. They said, 'What are you going to do? Take off your abaya.' They forced my clothes off. The first man with the knife raped me. I was destroyed. If I tried to escape, I don't even know where I would go. I tried to force them off but I couldn't. [Another] man … came in and did the same thing to me. I didn't even feel anything after that.
"I spent two hours begging them to take me home. I told them that it was late and that my family would be asking about me. Then I saw a third man come into the room. There was a lot of violence. After the third man came in, a fourth came. He slapped me and tried to choke me.
"The fifth and sixth ones were the most abusive. After the seventh one, I couldn't feel my body anymore. I didn't know what to do. Then a very fat man came on top of me and I could no longer breathe.
"Then all seven came back and raped me again. Then they took me home. … When I got out of the car, I couldn't even walk. I rang the doorbell and my mother opened the door. She said you look tired.' I didn't eat for one week after that, just water. I didn't tell anyone. I went to the hospital the next day.
"The criminals started talking about it [the rape] in my neighborhood. They thought my husband would divorce me. They wanted to ruin my reputation. Slowly my husband started to know what had happened. Four months later, we started a case. My family heard about the case. My brother hit me and tried to kill me."
Along with the young woman's sentence, the General Court of Qatif confiscated the license of her attorney, Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, a lawyer known for taking on controversial cases that push back against Saudi Arabia's strictly interpreted system of sharia, or Islamic law.
"Asking me to appear in front of a disciplinary committee at the Ministry of Justice … is a punishment for taking human rights cases against some institutions," Al-Lahem told Arab News.
Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Justice said in this week's statement that Al-Lahem's "faulty behaviors … contradict the ethics of his profession and violate the provisions of practicing law and its executive code."
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke, who studies the Saudi legal system, said the woman would need a pardon from King Abdullah himself or from the provincial governor to be spared the lashings and jail time. The punishment will also be reviewed by the Supreme Judiciary Council, which will scrutinize the ruling, according to the Ministry of Justice.