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Candidates slam Saudi rape verdict

  • Story Highlights
  • Hillary Clinton urges U.S. to intervene in case of Saudi rape victim
  • John Edwards and Joe Biden also express outrage over punishment
  • Court more than doubled woman's original sentence of 90 lashes to 200
  • U.S. State Department says U.S. officials have "expressed astonishment"
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(CNN) -- U.S. presidential candidates Wednesday condemned Saudi justice after a rape victim was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail.

Calling the decision "an outrage," Sen. Hillary Clinton urged President Bush to protest the decision to the Saudi authorities.

"The Bush administration has refused to condemn the sentence and said it will not protest an internal Saudi decision," the Democrat presidential front-runner said in a statement.

"I urge President Bush to call on King Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia] to cancel the ruling and drop all charges against this woman."

Some of Clinton's rivals also weighed in.

The decision to punish the victim of a gang rape "is an appalling breach of the most fundamental human rights," said Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

"I am outraged that President Bush has refused to condemn the sentence," he said.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden accused the Saudi judiciary of not only trying to silence this victim, but also trying to prevent future victims from coming forward.

The controversy relates to an incident in March 2006 when the woman, then age 18 and engaged to be married, and an unrelated man were abducted from a mall in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, by a group of seven men. She was later raped.

The man and woman met so she could retrieve an old photo of herself from him, according to Abdulrahman al-Lahim, her lawyer, who cited phone records from the police investigation that said the man was trying to blackmail her. Al-Lahim says the photo did not show his client in a compromising position.

In October, the men were convicted and sentenced to two to nine years for the assault. She was convicted of violating the kingdom's strict Islamic law by not having a male guardian with her at the mall.

The woman was originally sentenced in October 2006 to 90 lashes -- but when she appealed, the court more than doubled her sentence to 200 lashes.

A court source told Arab News, an English-language Middle Eastern daily newspaper, that the woman's sentence was increased after she spoke to the media about the case.

But a Saudi Justice Ministry statement said the permanent committee of the Supreme Judicial Council recommended an increased sentence for the woman after further evidence came to light against her when she appealed her original sentence. Video Watch the Saudi government defend the court decision »

The case, which has sparked media scrutiny of the Saudi legal system, drew a strong reaction from Washington, where State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials had "expressed astonishment" at the sentence, though not directly to Saudi officials.

He said that it was "within the power of the Saudi government to take a look at the verdict and change it."

There also has been a strong international response.

Lamri Chirouf, director of Middle East Research for Amnesty International, said: "There is no doubt that this is a direct result of the severe discrimination to which women are subjected in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... which includes at the heart of it denial of the right of the freedom of movement.

"Human rights are universal values, they're shared by all human beings. They're not to stop at frontiers, so they should be the concern of everyone."

Human Rights Watch said it has called on Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah "to immediately void the verdict and drop all charges against the rape victim and to order the court to end its harassment of her lawyer."

Al-Lahim has been ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Justice next month, where he faces a possible three-year suspension and disbarment, according to Human Rights Watch.

He said he has appealed to the Ministry of Justice to reinstate his law license and plans to meet with Justice Minister Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh.

"Currently she doesn't have a lawyer, and I feel they're doing this to isolate her and deprive her from her basic rights," he said. "We will not accept this judgment and I'll do my best to continue representing her because justice needs to take place."

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He said the handling of the case is a direct contradiction of judicial reforms announced by the Saudi king earlier this month.

"The Ministry of Justice needs to have a very clear standing regarding this case because I consider this decision to be judiciary mutiny against the reform that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz started and against Saudi women who are being victimized because of such decisions," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Octavia Nasr and Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report.

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