In his second inaugural address, President Bush stridently declared that his administration would not compromise on its demand for basic human rights:
We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend…that women welcome humiliation and servitude.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to these goals as the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” But a recent Saudi court decision has shown the administration very willing to fold when this rhetoric is tested.
A week ago, a Saudi appeals court increased the punishment for the female victim of a gang rape. The woman, who had been appealing her original sentence of 90 lashes, was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes after her appeal.
The Saudi judges more than doubled the punishment for the victim because of “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.” The Saudi Justice Ministry confirmed that the stiffer sentence handed out on appeal stemmed from the fact that the victim had gone to the media with her story. “Media may have adverse effects on the other parties involved in the case,” a statement said.
Asked to offer the administration’s position on the court ruling, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Monday that the administration was “astonished,” but had “nothing else to offer“:
QUESTION: A very quick question also from this morning. Your comment, please, on — in reaction to the young Saudi woman having her sentence more than doubled the –
MR. MCCORMACK: Right, yeah. I saw the news reports and I guess the first thing to say is, while this is a judicial procedure, part of a judicial procedure overseas in the courts of a sovereign country, that said, I think that most would find this relatively astonishing that something like this happened. So while it’s very difficult to offer — you know, offer any detailed comment about the situation, I think most people would really be quite astonished by the situation.
QUESTION: Would you like the Saudi authorities to reconsider it or do you encourage them to do that?
MR. MCCORMACK: Look, you know, again, I can’t get involved in specific court cases in Saudi Arabia dealing with its own citizens, but most — I think most people here would be quite surprised to learn of the circumstances and then the punishment meted out.
QUESTION: Does that mean that the State Department is astonished by it, too?
MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll leave the answer where it –
QUESTION: Well, what does “most people” mean? I mean, most of who?
MR. MCCORMACK: I would just leave — I don’t have anything else to offer.
Yesterday, McCormack was asked if the administration’s silence was “driven by a desire not to offend Saudi Arabia as a close ally.” “No, it’s — no, that’s not it at all,” he claimed, but then acknowledged the administration has yet to convey its “astonishment” directly to the Saudis. “I am not aware of any direct contact with the Saudis on this issue,” he said.
Apparently, there is some negotiability in Bush’s demands for human freedom.
UPDATE: The Muslim American Society Freedom called the court ruling “a clear violation of the compassion and mercy taught by the religion of Islam.”
UPDATE II: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) states, “I urge President Bush to call on King Abdullah to cancel the ruling and drop all charges against this woman.” In a letter to Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) wrote, “I strongly urge the Department of State to condemn this ruling.” Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and John Edwards released statements expressing their outrage.