Saudi Arabia is bristling at international criticism over the sentencing of a rape victim to prison and 200 lashes, insisting the West should stay out of its legal system. But the case could empower voices for change in the kingdom's Islamic courts.
The punishment of the "Girl of Qatif" as the rape victim is known, after her hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia was labeled "barbaric" by Canada. In a rare criticism of its Mideast ally, the White House called the Saudi court ruling "outrageous."
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in the U.S. for a Mideast peace conference, was visibly annoyed.
"What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people," he told reporters Tuesday.
But he said the Saudi judiciary will review the case and it will go before the nation's highest court _ a move seen as a challenge to conservative clerics who run the courts.
Saudi writer Sultan al-Qahtani said Saud's comment might be the "strongest message yet" from the kingdom's leadership that the judiciary must reform. The international pressure over the case could provide momentum to legal reform efforts pushed by Saudi King Abdullah.
"The controversy over the Girl of Qatif sentence might lead to a strong push for the government, which is inclined toward reform, to confront the other elements that insist the kingdom maintain its extreme religiosity," he wrote this week on liberal Saudi Web Site Elaph.
Saudi King Abdullah issued a decree in October for ambitious reforms in the court system, including establishing a Supreme Court and commercial, personal status and labor tribunals in an attempt to make the often random system more regulated.
But al-Qahtani said the deeply conservative clerical hierarchy is resistant.
In Saudi Arabia, courts are all Islamic, run by clerics following the kingdom's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam _ but with no written legal code.
"It's left to the judge to decide the punishment he sees, which leads to contradictions," Saudi columnist Saleh Ibrahim al-Tariki wrote in an article published Saturday on the Web site of the Al-Arabiya TV network _ a Saudi-owned station.
In the case of the Girl of Qatif, the woman _ a member of the kingdom's Shiite minority _ was attacked in 2006 when she met a high school friend in his car to retrieve a picture of herself from him, since she had recently married. Two men got into the vehicle and drove them to a secluded area where five others waited, and then the woman _ 19 at the time _ and her companion were both raped, she has said.
In October last year, she was sentenced to prison and 90 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her _ a violation of the kingdom's strict segregation of the sexes. The seven rapists were also convicted.
When her lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, appealed the sentence and made public comments about it, he was removed from the case, his license suspended, and the court increased the woman's penalty to six months in prison and 200 lashes.
The sentences for the seven men were also increased to between two to nine years in prison, up from the initial sentence of 10 months to five years.
On the Qatif case, the judiciary has taken a tough line. Days before Saud's comments, the Justice Ministry vowed the woman would be flogged and rejected foreign interference.
It also defended the doubling of the sentence against her, insisting she was an "adulteress."
The victim's husband denied that, stepping forward to defend his wife by calling into a Lebanese television program last week while it aired a debate on the case.
"I'm not lacking in manhood or an Arab man's honor that I would defend a cheating wife," if it were true, he said on the program, which did not give his name.
"I feel that in this catastrophe she exercised bad judgment by meeting this man, but how can you or anyone say she committed adultery?" he said and described the effect of the rape on the woman, including months where she didn't speak or eat and was physically ill.
His public defense reflected a rare openness that has been sparked by the controversy. Usually, families in the Arab world stay firmly silent about rape because of the shame connected to it.
So far, calls for reform within the Saudi kingdom have come from only a few voices _ but even that is a change from the past, when court decisions were rarely discussed.
In Saudi courts, rules of evidence are shaky, sometimes no lawyers are present, and the judges _ appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council _ have complete discretion, including on sentencing, except in cases where Sharia outlines a punishment, such as capital crimes.
Al-Tariki pointed to the discrepancies that result. In recent cases, he wrote, three teenagers were beheaded for attacking a gas station and injuring a worker while a government employee who received thousands of riyals as a bribe was only sentenced eight months in prison. A group of men received 12 years in prison for sexual harassment, compared to the shorter sentences for the Girl of Qatif rapists.
"Turning the criminal to a victim is the worst a judge can do," he said. "There are so many questions on the Saudis' minds and the Justice Ministry must answer them, so the average citizen won't lose his mind and think that justice and injustice are the same."
Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.