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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 November 2007, 08:17 GMT
Democrats condemn Saudi rape case
Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton led a chorus of Democratic condemnations
US Democratic party presidential contenders say they are outraged at a Saudi court increasing the punishment handed to a gang-rape victim.

The woman was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail because she was in an unrelated man's car. The car was attacked by a gang who raped her.

Hillary Clinton said King Abdullah should cancel the ruling. Barack Obama said the sentence was "beyond unjust".

Similar criticism came from Joe Biden and John Edwards.

The 19-year-old victim has not been named but has become known as the Qatif girl, a reference to her home town. The man in the car was also assaulted.

I urge President Bush to call on King Abdullah to cancel the ruling and drop all charges against this woman
Hillary Clinton

She had originally been given a lighter sentence, but it was increased on appeal last week - as were those of the seven men involved in the attacks.

Court sources were reported as saying the judges did not like the publicity the victim's lawyer had generated for the case.

The court also banned him from the courtroom and took away his licence to practise.

Human rights 'priority'

The case has attracted much attention and criticism in the United States. The State Department has expressed "astonishment" at the sentence.

But for Sen Clinton, this was too weak a reaction.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama says the ruling was 'beyond unjust'

"I urge President Bush to call on King Abdullah to cancel the ruling and drop all charges against this woman," she said.

"As president I will once again make human rights an American priority around the world."

Sen Obama wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to condemn the ruling.

"That the victim was sentenced at all is unjust, but that the court doubled the sentence because of efforts to call attention to the ruling is beyond unjust," he said.

Mr Edwards said in a statement: "I am outraged that President Bush has refused to condemn the sentence".

Sen Biden also called on King Abdullah to overturn the court's decision.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have defended the sentence as consistent with Saudi law, and warned against "agitation through the media" - a sign of how sensitive the authorities are to the fact that the woman and her lawyer sought to use the media to highlight the case, says BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy.

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

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