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...

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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.

On Monday, Bush’s National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe 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.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. hopes 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.

Public criticism of the Islamic judiciary is rare in Saudi Arabia, where a commitment to implementing the Wahhabi version of Islamic Shariah 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 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 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. The seven rapists were also convicted.

When her lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, appealed the sentence and made comments about it, he was removed from the case and his license suspended. The court last month 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.

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

The controversy erupted as the United States was trying to ensure Saudi Arabia’s participation in the November Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md. — which the kingdom did eventually attend. In the U.S. ahead of the conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was visibly irritated when asked about the case but also promised the sentence would be reviewed.