WASHINGTON - The State Department expressed astonishment yesterday about a Saudi court's sentence of six months in jail and 200 lashes for a woman who was gang raped.
Department spokesman Sean McCormack stopped short of stronger language against its close ally in the Middle East. On Monday, Canada said it would lodge a complaint and called the sentence barbaric.
"I think when you look at the crime and the fact that now the victim is punished, I think that causes a fair degree of surprise and astonishment," McCormack said. "But it is within the power of the Saudi government to take a look at the verdict and change it."
The sentencing came as the United States is trying to get Saudi Arabia to co-sponsor a US-organized conference next week in the United States to work toward a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. President Bush telephoned Saudi King Abdullah yesterday about the conference.
The decision by the Qatif General Court more than doubled the woman's sentence after she was convicted of being in the car of a man who was not a relative.
The woman initially had been sentenced to 90 lashes after she was convicted of violating rigid laws on the segregation of the sexes. The Saudi court said the woman's punishment was increased because of "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media."
The Saudi Ministry of Justice stood by the verdict yesterday, saying that "charges were proven" against the woman.
Under Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, women are not allowed in public in the company of men other than relatives.
The seven men convicted of raping the woman were given prison sentences of two years to nine years.
The woman has said the 2006 attack occurred as she tried to retrieve her picture from a male friend. While in the car with the friend, two men climbed into the vehicle and drove to a secluded area. She said she was raped by seven men, three of whom also attacked her friend.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the verdict "not only sends victims of sexual violence the message that they should not press charges, but in effect offers protection and impunity to the perpetrators."