In a ruling decried by Saudi lawyers as too severe, a court in the desert kingdom this week sentenced a female victim of gang rape to six months in prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man who was not her relative.
The 200 lashes included in the sentence, which was reached Wednesday by the Qatif General Court, more than doubled the woman's original punishment of 90 lashes. The court boosted her penalty because of the victim's "attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media," a report in the English-language Arab News newspaper said, quoting one of the judges.
The young woman, who was 19 years old when she was raped 18 months ago, became the centre of a debate about Saudi Arabia's justice system since going public with her case a year ago. Saudi lawyers said they found the decision too harsh even by Saudi standards of justice.
Known only in the Saudi media as "the Qatif girl," the victim's offence was in meeting privately with a high-school boyfriend in a car in 2006 because she was about to marry another man and wanted toretrieve some photographs.
Under the Saudi penal code, which operatesaccording toa strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, it is forbidden for a woman to be alone with a man who is not her husband or a relative.
The woman's former boyfriend, who was not one of the rapists, was sitting alone with the woman when a group of seven men abducted them and raped them both. The woman was raped 14 times, according to reports.
The male victim was convicted for violating Saudi Arabia's rigid gender-segregation law, and was himself sentenced to 90 lashes.
The couple's attackers were originally sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 months to five years in prison, but also had their sentences increased to two to nine years this week, reports said.
Attackers' sentences too lenient: Lawyer
Lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem, a well-known human rights activist who represented the female victim in court, appealed the attackers' sentences, arguing they were too lenient and that the treatment of his client was too harsh.
In its verdict on Wednesday, the Qatif General Court also suspended Al-Lahem's licence to practice law. For his regular appearance on Arab television to discuss the case, Al-Lahem faces a disciplinary hearing before a Ministry of Justice Committee in December.
Lashing is a common sentence in Saudi Arabia for crimes such as homosexuality and adultery. Bassem Alim, a lawyer in the western metropolis of Jeddah, told the New York Times that a typical punishment for adultery ranges from 60 to 80 lashes.
"I don't think she was committing adultery in that car," Alim said, adding he felt the young woman was treated unjustly in the case.
The victim's husband told local reporters that he plans to appeal the verdict, the Times reported.
For now, the woman is free and has not yet been lashed.