World News

Saudi official criticizes ruling on rape victim

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Saudi official on Monday sought to distance his government from a court’s decision to sentence a woman who was gang-raped to 200 lashes.

A human rights activist holds a banner during a protest, against a Saudi court verdict for a rape victim, near the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Mumbai November 22, 2007. REUTERS/Arko Datta

“Unfortunately, these things happen. Bad judgments occur in legal systems,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters while in Washington to attend a Middle East peace conference in Maryland.

The case has drawn international attention and stirred criticism from human rights groups and U.S. officials.

The 19-year-old Shi’ite woman at the center of the case was abducted and raped along with a male companion by seven men.

Ruling according to Saudi Arabia’s strict reading of Islamic law, a court had originally sentenced the woman to 90 lashes for being alone with an unrelated man and the rapists to prison terms of up to five years.

The Supreme Judicial Council this 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.

Faisal said the judgment was being used to vilify the Saudi government even though it was not responsible because the courts are independent.

“Issues like that, bad judgments by the courts, happen everywhere, even in the United States,” he said. “It is a process that is still going on. This is being reviewed by a legal process and we hope it will be changed.”

The Saudi Justice Ministry issued a statement on Saturday suggesting the ruling was justified because the woman was married and “confessed to establishing a relationship in violation of (Islamic) Sharia law.”

It said she and her companion were alone in a dark area outdoors when they were noticed by the men who raped them.

The Saudi legal system is dominated by clerics who adhere to the kingdom’s austere Sunni interpretation of Islamic law.

Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Xavier Briand