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 the 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, Bush's National Security Council spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said the White House thought 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.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the United States hoped the pardon "will have some broader impact on the way the judiciary might handle cases like this in the future."
With the pardon, Abdullah appeared to be aiming to relieve the U.S. pressure 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 on the front pages of the 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 said the pardon did not mean that 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," Sheik said, according to Al-Jazirah.