JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has pardoned a gang-rape victim whose sentencing to 200 lashes and half a year in prison caused an international outcry and angered many Saudis.
“Because of the barbaric crime committed against the woman, and because erring in pardon is better than erring in punishment … we have decided to pardon her,” said a royal decree carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The woman’s husband, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he learned of the pardon from news reports and immediately called his wife. “She was relieved and happy. It has been a nightmare for her,” he said. “I am very grateful to the king.”
Many Saudis view Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, as a modernizer who is seeking to reform the judiciary. Saudi Arabia’s judges have used their power for decades to enforce what some see as archaic interpretations of Islamic law, but several rulings are now provoking wider public discussion.
Apparently unwilling to openly confront the religious establishment, the king has used pardons to free people in high-profile cases that have drawn scrutiny from human rights groups. He also appropriated nearly $2 billion in October for an overhaul of the judiciary that officials said would update the legal system.
“We’re very pleased by the decision that was taken by the king, and we certainly hope it will send a signal to the Saudi judiciary,” U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said of Monday’s pardon.
Saudi activists are frustrated by the lack of systemic change. “What we need is not pardons. We need justice. We need a judiciary that safeguards citizens’ rights, not one that abuses them,” said Fawzeyah al-Oyouni, a human rights activist and retired school administrator in Dhahran.
The woman pardoned by the king, a 20-year-old known in the news media as the Girl of Qatif, after her hometown, was sentenced to a six-month prison term and 200 lashes in September for being alone with a man not related to her. Saudi Arabia bans unrelated men and women from mingling. The woman was in a car retrieving photos from the acquaintance in October 2006 when both were kidnapped at knifepoint and gang-raped.
After she and her attorney appealed the original sentence of 90 lashes, saying it punished the victim, the judges increased the sentence and insinuated that the woman was having an affair with the man, who received the same sentence. The rapists’ original sentences of between 10 months and five years were almost doubled.
The royal decree said the king’s decision “takes into account the public interest and the fact that the woman and her companion were subject to suffering that could be considered enough punishment for them.”
The judiciary remains a stronghold of powerful clerics who are fighting change, said al-Oyouni, the activist, citing the case of members of the religious police cleared in the May death of Salman al-Huraisi, an alleged alcohol peddler who was in their custody; a married couple forcibly divorced by court order, despite their wish to stay together; and a teenager sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for insulting the prophet Muhammad.