RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - A woman sentenced to prison and a public lashing after being gang-raped has been pardoned by the Saudi monarch in a case that sparked an international outcry, including rare criticism from the United States, the kingdom's top ally.

The woman, known only as "the Girl of Qatif," was convicted of violating Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic laws against mixing of the sexes because she was in a car with a man she was not related to when seven men attacked and raped them both in 2006.

The sentence shocked many in the West. In unusually strong criticism of a close ally, President Bush said that if the same thing happened to one of his daughters, he would be "angry at those who committed the crime. And I'd be angry at a state that didn't support the victim."

In past weeks, Saudi officials have bristled at the criticism of what they consider an internal affair - but also appeared wary of hurting their nation's image in the United States.

Yesterday Gordon Johndroe, Bush's National Security Council spokesman, said the White House thinks King Abdullah "made the right decision" by pardoning the woman, who was 19 at the time of the attack and is from Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia.

With the pardon, Abdullah appeared to be aiming to relieve the pressure from the United States without being seen to criticize Saudi Arabia's conservative Islamic legal system, a stronghold of powerful clerics of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

The announcement of Abdullah's pardon was published yesterday on the front pages of Al-Jazirah newspaper, which is deemed close to the royal family. But it did not appear in any other local media or the state-run news agency - in an apparent attempt to play down the case at home.

Justice Minister Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Sheik defended the courts, saying the pardon does not mean the king doubted the country's judges, but that he was acting in the "interests of the people."

"The king always looks into alleviating the suffering of the citizens when he becomes sure that these verdicts will leave psychological effects on the convicted people, though he is convinced and sure that the verdicts were fair," al-Sheik said, according to by Al-Jazirah.

Public criticism of the Islamic judiciary is rare in Saudi Arabia, where commitment to implementing the Wahhabi version of Islamic Sharia law is one of the foundations of the ruling family's legitimacy.

Still, the case triggered a small but unusual debate in the country about its courts, in which judges have wide discretion in punishing a criminal, rules of evidence are shaky and sometimes no defense lawyers are present.

Abdullah, seen as a reformer, issued a decree in October for ambitious changes in the legal system, to modernize and regulate the judiciary and establish a Supreme Court.

But the deeply conservative clerical hierarchy is resistant. The kingdom's Justice Ministry has defended the sentence, saying the victim was having an illicit affair with the man in the car.

The woman's husband welcomed the pardon, saying by phone yesterday that when his wife heard the news, she was "very, very happy and felt psychologically better."

The pardon was a "fatherly gesture" that relieved him and his wife of "psychological suffering," said the husband, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the case.

He has come out publicly to defend his wife, calling into a debate on the case on Lebanese television last month, though he refused to have his name aired.

The Girl of Qatif - 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 and her companion were both raped, she said.

In October 2006, she was sentenced to prison and 90 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her. The seven rapists were also convicted.

When her lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, appealed the sentence and commented about it, he was removed from the case and his license suspended.

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.

Amnesty International said the man who was raped received the same sentence as the woman. Al-Jazirah did not mention whether he also had been pardoned. *