Saudi blogger receives 50 lashings before crowd for insulting Islam

A Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in jail for insulting Islam received his first 50 lashes outside a mosque in the city of Jeddah Friday.

Raif Badawi—the co-founder of a now banned website called Liberal Saudi Network-- was flogged 50 times after morning prayers in the Red Sea city, witnesses said.

He arrived at the mosque in a police car and authorities read the charges out to him in front of a crowd, the BBC reported, citing the AFP news agency. He was forced to stand with his back to onlookers with his feet and hands bound, but his face visible. He remained silent during the lashings.

Badawi was arrested in 2012 after criticizing Saudi Arabia's powerful clerics on his blog. In 2013, he was cleared of apostasy, which could have carried a death sentence.

Last May, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. Amnesty International said Badawi would receive 50 lashes once a week for 20 weeks.

Rights groups condemned Badawi’s conviction and the U.S. made a rare diplomatic decision to publicly call on Saudi Arabia to rescind the sentencing Thursday.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki urged Saudi authorities to "cancel this brutal punishment" and review his case.

“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,” Psaki said.

The State Department routinely asks foreign governments to respect human rights and observe due process of law when facing political opponents. But senior U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal Thursday it’s extremely rare for Washington to demand the reversal of a legal decision, especially by an important U.S. ally.

The move could put more strain on Washington’s relations with the Arab monarchy at a delicate time, when the two nations are disagreeing over strategic and economic policies. The Obama administration wants to work closely with Saudi Arabia against Islamic extremism,  specifically fighting  ISIS militants who have gained control of larges areas of Syria and Iraq.  The Pentagon plans to train Syrian rebels at Saudi training facilities in the coming months.

"The flogging of Raif Badawi is a vicious act of cruelty which is prohibited under international law," said Said Boumedouha of Amnesty International.

"By ignoring international calls to cancel the flogging Saudi Arabia's authorities have demonstrated an abhorrent disregard for the most basic human rights principles," Boumedouha added.

Rights groups and activists say his case is part of a wider clampdown on dissent throughout the kingdom. Officials have increasingly blunted calls for reforms since the region's 2011 Arab Spring upheaval.

"It is horrifying to think that such a vicious and cruel punishment should be imposed on someone who is guilty of nothing more than daring to create a public forum for discussion and peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression," Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director said Thursday.

Saudi Arabia enforces a strict version of Islamic law and does not tolerate political dissent. It has some of the highest social media usage rates in the region, and has cracked down on domestic online criticism, imposing harsh punishments.

In addition to his sentence, Badawi was ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals ($266,000). Following his arrest, his wife and children left the kingdom for Canada.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.