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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 November 2007, 00:00 GMT
Saudis back rape victim sentence
Woman in Saudi Arabia
Saudi women are not allowed to mingle with unrelated men
Authorities in Saudi Arabia have defended a judicial sentence of 200 lashes for a rape victim.

The justice ministry said in a statement that the sentence was justified because the woman was in a car with an unrelated man.

The case has aroused controversy at home and condemnation abroad.

US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said the sentence was an outrage and urged President Bush to put pressure on Saudi King Abdullah.

The 19-year-old, who has not been named, was travelling in a car with a male friend last year, when the car was attacked by a gang of seven men who raped both of them.

She has become known as the "Qatif girl", a reference to the largely Shia town which she comes from.

Four of the men were convicted of kidnapping - but the court also sentenced the woman and her friend to receive 90 lashes each for the crime of "illegal mingling".

Last week the court increased the woman's sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison.

It also banned her lawyer from the courtroom and took away his licence.

Democratic reaction

The Saudi justice ministry has defended the verdict and warned against "agitation through the media" - a sign of how sensitive the authorities are to the fact that the woman and her lawyer have sought to use the media to highlight the case, says BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton led a chorus of Democratic condemnations

Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential elections, strongly condemned the Saudi sentence.

"The Bush administration has refused to condemn the sentence and said it will not protest against an internal Saudi decision," she said.

"I urge President Bush to call on King Abdullah to cancel the ruling and drop all charges against this woman. As president I will once again make human rights an American priority around the world."

Other Democratic candidates joined in the criticism, with Barack Obama writing a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to condemn the ruling.

John Edwards said in a statement: "I am outraged that President Bush has refused to condemn the sentence"; and Joseph Biden called on King Abdullah to overturn the court's decision.

A state department spokesman on Tuesday called the verdict "astonishing", but said it was not its place to call for the ruling to be changed.

The US-based Human Rights Watch said it sends victims of sexual violence the message that they should not press charges.

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