Saudi Arabia has publicly flogged an imprisoned activist during the first session of a sentence that will see him subjected to 50 lashes a week for 20 consecutive Fridays.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a total of 1,000 lashes for a range of offenses and insulting religious authorities, after he set up the "Liberal Saudi Network," a now non-operative website that aimed to provide a forum for public debate.
Amnesty International reported that Badawi was to be publicly flogged after Friday prayers in front of the al-Jafali mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. In addition to his sentence, the activist was ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals ($266,000).
Onlookers reported that Badawi arrived at the mosque in a police car on Friday and had his charges read out to him before being made to face away from the crowd and whipped. He reportedly remained silent throughout.
US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki issued a statement in response to the news that the punishment was going ahead. After expressing great concern, Psaki said the US was calling on Saudi authorities to cancel the "brutal punishment," and that Badawi had been sentenced for simply "exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion."
Psaki added: "The United States strongly opposes laws, including apostasy laws, that restrict the exercise of these freedoms, and urges all countries to uphold these rights in practice."
Badawi was first detained in 2008 on apostasy charges — a crime punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia — but quickly released.
Reporters Without Borders program director Lucie Morillon said that Saudi Arabia's behaviour on this matter was hypocritical. "Although Saudi Arabia condemned yesterday's cowardly attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it is now preparing to inflict the most barbaric punishment on a citizen who just used his freedom of expression and information, the same freedom that cost the French journalists their lives."
The non-profit — who campaign for freedom of expression, and provide support to journalists — have set up a petition that has attracted more than 14,000 signatures. They are being kept abreast of developments in Badawi's case by his wife Ensaf Haidar, who they say is now a refugee in Canada, where she also took their three children.
Yesterday, Haidar tweeted that she had heard that those carrying out the punishment had been told to lash Badawi "severely."
Speaking after Badawi's sentencing in May last year, Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, said that Badawi is a "prisoner of conscience," who is "guilty of nothing more than daring to create a public forum for discussion and peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression."
He also called Badawi "the latest victim to fall prey to the ruthless campaign to silence peaceful activists in Saudi Arabia. The authorities seem determined to crush all forms of dissent through every means at their disposal, including imposing harsh prison sentences and corporal punishment on activists."
Islamic Sharia law is strictly enforced in Saudi Arabia, meaning that the judiciary — trained religious scholars — decide judgments and sentences based on their personal interpretation of religious texts. In the past, the country has called for an international law to be drafted which would outlaw insults against the world's main religions. Visitors are advised to avoid practicing other religions in public while there, and to be aware of their actions so that they "do not offend."
After Badawi's sentencing, his lawyer Waleed Abul-Khair was also sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for "undermining the regime and officials," "inciting public opinion," and "insulting the judiciary." Abul-Khair was allegedly tried in an anti-terrorism court, which also banned him from leaving the country for a further 15 years after his release.
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