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Rape Case Roils Saudi Legal System

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By DONNA ABU-NASR
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 21, 2006; 4:49 PM

AL-AWWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia -- When the teenager went to the police a few months ago to report she was gang-raped by seven men, she never imagined the judge would punish her _ and that she would be sentenced to more lashes than one of her alleged rapists received.

The story of the Girl of Qatif, as the alleged rape victim has been called by the media here, has triggered a rare debate about Saudi Arabia's legal system, in which judges have wide discretion in punishing a criminal, rules of evidence are shaky and sometimes no defense lawyers are present.

The result, critics say, are sentences left to the whim of judges. These include one in which a group of men got heavier sentences for harassing women than the men in the Girl of Qatif rape case or three men who were convicted of raping a boy. In another, a woman was ordered to divorce her husband against her will based on a demand by her relatives.

In the case of the Girl of Qatif, she was sentenced to 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married _ a crime in this strictly segregated country _ at the time that she was allegedly attacked and raped by a group of other men.

In the sleepy, Shiite village of al-Awwamiya on the outskirts of the eastern city of Qatif, the 19-year-old is struggling to forget the spring night that changed her life. An Associated Press reporter met her in a face-to-face interview. She spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her privacy; the AP does not identify rape victims unless they ask to be named.

Her hands tremble, her dark brown eyes are lifeless. Her sleep is interrupted by a replay of the events, which she describes in a barely audible whisper.

That night, she said, she had left home to retrieve her picture from a male high school student she used to know. She had just been married _ but had not moved in with her husband _ and did not want her picture to remain with the student.

While the woman was in the car with the student, she said, two men intercepted them, got into the vehicle and drove the couple to a secluded area where the two were separated. She said she was raped by seven men, three of whom also allegedly raped her friend.

In a trial that ended in November _ in which the prosecutor asked for the death penalty for the seven men _ four of the men received between one and five years in prison plus 80 to 1,000 lashes, said the woman. Three others are awaiting sentencing. Neither the defendants nor the plaintiffs retained lawyers, as is common here.

"The big shock came when the judge sentenced me and the man to 90 lashes each," said the woman. The sentence was handed down as part of the rape trial. Lashes are usually spread over several days, dealt around 50 at a time.

The sentences have yet to be carried out, but the punishments ordered have caused an uproar.

"Because I could make no sense (of the sentence) and became in dire need of patience, I muttered after I read the verdict against the Girl of Qatif: 'My heart is with you,'" wrote Fatima al-Faqeeh in a column in Al-Watan newspaper.


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© 2006 The Associated Press

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