RIYADH, Nov 25 (Reuters) Saudi Arabia defended a court's decision to sentence a woman who was gang-raped to 200 lashes, saying she was having an extramarital affair in violation of Islamic laws.
The case of the 19-year-old Shi'ite woman who was abducted and raped along with a male companion by seven men has drawn international attention. Even the United States, a close ally of the conservative kingdom, offered mild criticism of the verdict.
''The woman in the case is married and has confessed to establishing a relationship in violation of (Islamic) sharia law,'' the Saudi Justice Ministry said in a statement. It said she and her companion had been alone in a dark area outdoors, when they were noticed by the men who later raped them.
Ruling according to Saudi Arabia's strict reading of Islamic law, a court had originally sentenced the woman to 90 lashes for being alone with an unrelated man and the rapists to jail terms of up to five years.
Last week the Supreme Judicial Council increased the sentence to 200 lashes and six months in prison and ordered the rapists to serve between two and nine years in jail.
The ruling provoked rare criticism from the United States, which has invited Saudi Arabia to attend a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland next week.
A State Department spokesman told reporters on Monday that ''most (people) would find this relatively astonishing that something like this happens''.
The court also took disciplinary action against the woman's lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, forcibly removing him from the case for having talked about it to the media.
''We reiterate that that judicial rulings in this virtuous country ... are based on God's book (the Koran) and the traditions of his Prophet (Mohammad) and that no ruling is issued without being based on evidence ...,'' said yesterday's statement, carried by the official news agency SPA.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on King Abdullah, who last month announced plans to overhaul the system, to drop all charges against the woman.
The Saudi legal system is dominated by clerics who adhere to the kingdom's austere Sunni interpretation of Islamic law.
Reuters TB VP0510