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Last Updated: Monday, 17 December 2007, 10:38 GMT
Saudi king 'pardons rape victim'
Saudi women
Saudi women are subject to strict sex segregation laws
The Saudi king has pardoned a female rape victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes for being alone with a man raped in the same attack, reports say.

The "Qatif girl" case caused an international outcry with widespread criticism of the Saudi justice system.

The male and female victims were in a car together when they were abducted and raped by seven attackers, who were given jail sentences up to nine years.

Press reports say King Abdullah's move did not mean the sentence was wrong.

Quoted by the Jazirah newspaper, Justice Minister Abdullah al-Sheikh said the king had the right to issue pardons if it served the public interest.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to mix with men who are not close family members.

The custodial sentence plus 200 lashes was imposed after the woman, who has not been named, appealed against an earlier sentence of 90 lashes.

'Astonishing' case

The Saudi king frequently pardons criminals at the Eid al-Adha festival which takes place this week, but correspondents say that is usually announced by the official press agency.

The BBC's Heba Saleh says the king's decision to pardon the woman victim is already arousing controversy with some contributors to conservative websites, who say he has breached the rules of religion in order to appease critics in the West.

The US had called the punishment "astonishing", although it refused to condemn the Saudi justice system.

Human rights groups had been calling on King Abdullah, who has a reputation as a pro-Western reformer, to change it.

The justice ministry recently rejected what it saw as "foreign interference" in the case and insisted the ruling was legal and that the woman had confessed to having an affair with her fellow rape victim.

Earlier, the woman - who is a Shia Muslim from the Qatif area - had reportedly said she met the man in order to retrieve a photograph of them together, having herself recently got married.

She says two other men then entered the car and took them to a secluded area where others were waiting, and both she and her male companion were raped.

The woman's companion was sentenced to 90 lashes. It is not known if his sentence was also lifted.

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