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King pardons Saudi rape victim

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  • NEW: Sources say pardon unrelated to Hajj nor subsequent Eid al-Adha
  • NEW: Justice minister says king felt pardon in best interests of Saudi people
  • Report: King Abdullah pardons rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes
  • A Saudi court had ruled the 19-year-old had an "illegitimate relationship"
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(CNN) -- Saudi King Abdullah has pardoned a rape victim who had been sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison in a case that sparked international attention, a Saudi newspaper has reported.

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The case cast light on the treatment of women under Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic law.

Al-Jazirah newspaper quoted a Saudi Justice Ministry official saying King Abdullah issued a royal pardon Monday -- the same day that the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, begins in Saudi Arabia.

The victim's husband told CNN he has not received an official letter regarding her pardon, but considers it to be legitimate since it was announced in an official Saudi newspaper.

He thanked King Abdullah for the pardon, saying: "This fatherly care and noble gesture will help (in) lifting the emotional and psychological stress and suffering that our family has been enduring."

"This is not something new because we know that the King was always generous in dealing with his people and the entire world," the husband said. "This week, we have two holidays to celebrate; the Eid and this great news of the pardon."

Saudi sources told CNN that the king's pardon was not related to the beginning of the Hajj nor the Eid al-Adha festival that follows, which is normally when the Saudi monarch issues amnesty for prisoners.Video Watch how Arab media is reporting the story. »

Saudi Arabia's Justice Minister Abdullah Bin Mohammad al-Sheikh told al-Jazirah newspaper that the king felt the pardon would be in the best interests of the Saudi people, and the decision did not reflect any lack of confidence in the Saudi justice system.

The White House welcomed King Abdullah's decision, but National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe stressed that "this is obviously a matter for the Saudi Arabians and King Abdullah."

A Saudi court ruled the 19-year-old had an "illegitimate relationship" with a man who was not her husband, and that she was raped after she and the man were discovered in a "compromising situation, her clothes on the ground."

The rape took place in Qatif in March 2006 when the woman was engaged to be married.

The case has drawn international attention, provoked outrage in the West and cast light on the treatment of women under strict Islamic law in Saudi Arabia.

The woman was meeting with a man -- described by the woman's attorney as a former friend from whom she was retrieving a photograph -- when they both were abducted last March.

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Seven men, convicted of abducting the pair and raping her, were sentenced from two to nine years in prison.

Abdul Rahman al-Lahim, the lawyer who represented the woman, faced a disciplinary hearing for "insulting the Supreme Judicial Council and disobeying the rules and regulations" of the judiciary. The hearing has been postponed.

The woman's husband has been outspoken in his support for his wife. He called a Lebanese TV show to defend her, when a former Saudi judge claimed on the program that she "spoil(ed) their marital bed" by meeting an unrelated male "in secret" and admitted her guilt.

Al-Lahim has said he hopes the case changes the Saudi justice system.

"We want to highlight the rape crimes in Saudi Arabia and the way they are handled and sentenced in court," he added. "This is a new era for all of us."

He said that the rape case had elicited a fierce response, including calls for his beheading.

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U.S. President George W. Bush said last week that King Abdullah "knows our position loud and clear" on the case.

Under Saudi law, women are subject to numerous restrictions, including a strict dress code, a prohibition against driving and a requirement that they get a man's permission to travel or have surgery. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom, Saad Abedine and Isha Sesay contributed to this report

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