A liberal activist sentenced to prison and flogging in Saudi Arabia underwent the first round of 50 lashes in public after Friday prayers, rights watchdog Amnesty International said.
Raif Badawi, who set up the “Free Saudi Liberals” website, was arrested in June 2012 and prosecuted for offences including cyber crime and disobeying his father.
The prosecution had demanded he be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but a judge dismissed that charge.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a fine of SAR1 million ($266,666) and 1,000 lashes last year after prosecutors challenged an earlier sentence of seven years and 600 lashes as too lenient.
On Thursday, the United States asked Riyadh to cancel the sentence of 1,000 lashes.
Amnesty International quoted a witness as saying the flogging took place after Friday prayers in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah.
Badawi “was removed from a bus in shackles and brought to the public square in front of the mosque”, Amnesty said in a statement.
“Surrounded by a crowd made up of the public and a number of security officers, he received 50 consecutive lashes on his back. The whole ordeal lasted around 15 minutes. Afterwards he was put back in the bus and taken away,” the group said.
The rest of the sentence would be carried out over a period of 50 weeks, Amnesty said. Badawi’s website included articles critical of senior Saudi religious figures and others from Muslim history.
Saudi Arabia’s legal code follows sharia Islamic law. Judges are trained as religious scholars and have broad scope to base verdicts and sentences on their own interpretation of religious texts.
Saudi Arabia on Wednesday condemned the killings of 12 people in an attack on a French satirical newspaper which had lampooned Islam. But it has also in the past called for an international law to criminalise insults to the world’s main religions.