Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia on Friday publicly flogged a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam, with Amnesty International condemning his punishment as a "vicious act of cruelty".
A Saudi court in September upheld a sentence of 10 years in prison as well as the flogging for Raef Badawi, who has been behind bars since June 2012.
The 30-year-old received a first instalment of 50 lashes on Friday and is expected to have 20 weekly whipping sessions until his punishment is complete.
The United States, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have denounced the flogging as a horrific form of punishment, saying Badawi was exercising his right to freedom of expression.
Witnesses said that Badawi was flogged after the weekly Friday prayers near Al-Jafali mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah as a crowd of worshippers looked on.
He was driven to the site in a police car, and taken out of the vehicle as a government employee read out the charges against him to the crowd.
The blogger was made to stand with his back to onlookers as another man began flogging him, witnesses said, adding that Badawi did not make any sound or cry in pain.
People who had emerged from noon prayers watched in silence and were ordered by security forces not to take any pictures on their mobile phones.
London-based Amnesty International, citing witnesses, said the whole ordeal "lasted around 15 minutes" and that Badawi was shackled.
"The flogging of Raef Badawi is a vicious act of cruelty which is prohibited under international law," said Amnesty's Said Boumedouha, describing the blogger as a "prisoner of conscience".
"By ignoring international calls to cancel the flogging Saudi Arabia's authorities have demonstrated an abhorrent disregard for the most basic human rights principles."
Amnesty, echoing other rights groups, said Badawi's "only 'crime' was to exercise his right to freedom of expression by setting up a website for public discussion," and demanded his unconditional release.
Rights groups have also criticised Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, for regularly beheading convicts under its strict version of Islamic sharia law.
Rape, apostasy, murder, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death.
- 'Brutal' and 'barbaric' -
The US had urged its ally Saudi Arabia to cancel the "brutal" lashing of Badawi.
"We are greatly concerned about reports that human rights activist Raef Badawi will start facing the inhumane punishment of 1,000 lashes in addition to serving a 10-year sentence in prison for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the punishment was "barbaric" and noted it came after Saudi Arabia condemned the assault on French magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead.
It said Badawi, who was also ordered to pay a fine of one million riyals ($267,000, 192,00 euros), had "just used his freedom of expression and information."
Badawi is the co-founder of the now-banned Saudi Liberal Network along with women's rights campaigner Suad al-Shammari, who was also accused of insulting Islam and arrested last October.
Shammari has said the charges against Badawi were levelled after the Saudi Liberal Network criticised clerics and the kingdom's notorious religious police, who have been accused of a heavy-handed enforcement of sharia law.
In July 2013, a court initially sentenced Badawi to more than seven years in jail and 600 lashes, but an appeals court overturned the ruling, sending the case back for retrial when he received a harsher sentence.
Amnesty said flogging is prohibited under international law while Reporters Without Borders slammed "Saudi Arabia's Friday of shame".