Saudi Arabia Postpones Flogging of Blogger for Second Time

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Published Thursday, January 22, 2015

Updated at 3:30 pm (GMT +2): Rights group Amnesty International said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would postpone the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, whose case has sparked international criticism, for a second week on medical grounds.

"The planned flogging of Raif Badawi will be suspended this Friday after a medical committee assessed that he should not undergo a second round of lashes on health grounds," the London-based watchdog said in a statement.

He has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam and is serving a 10-year jail sentence.

Badawi, a blogger and founder of the "Free Saudi Liberals" website, was sentenced last year to 10 years in jail, a fine of 1 million riyals ($267,000) and 1,000 lashes.

He received the first 50 lashes of his sentence outside a mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah on January 9.

He was expected to undergo 20 flogging sessions to complete the punishment, but last Friday his wife said the second round had been delayed on medical grounds.

Ensaf Haidar, who has sought asylum in Canada, also said her husband's case has been referred to the supreme court, possibly paving the way for an appeal.

Amnesty said a committee of several doctors carried out a series of tests at a Jeddah hospital on Wednesday and recommended against a new session of caning.

But "there is no way of knowing whether the Saudi Arabian authorities will disregard the medical advice and allow the flogging to go ahead," Said Boumedouha, Amnesty's deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in the statement.

Amnesty called for the blogger's immediate and unconditional release, "instead of continuing to torment RaIf Badawi by dragging out his ordeal".

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed last week the punishment inflicted on Badawi, calling on the Saudi monarchy to pardon him.

"Flogging is in my view at very least a form of cruel and inhuman punishment," High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said in a statement. As such, it was banned under international rights law, he added.

"I appeal to the King of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Mr. Badawi, and to urgently review this type of extraordinary harsh penalty," said Zeid, a former Jordanian diplomat.

Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and prosecutors originally asked that he be tried for apostasy, an offense which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

Women's rights campaigner and Saudi Liberal Network co-founder Suad al-Shammari has said the charges against Badawi were brought after the Saudi Liberal Network criticized clerics and the kingdom's notorious religious police, who have been accused of a heavy-handed enforcement of Sharia.

But a judge dismissed that charge and he was given 10 years jail and a fine of 1 million Saudi rials ($267,666), as well as the lashes, on charges including cybercrime after an earlier sentence of seven years and 600 lashes was found too lenient.

The UN statement said Badawi was "convicted for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of opinion and expression" in a series of prosecutions of civil society activists, including his lawyer and brother-in-law, Waleed Abu al-Khair.

In the past years Saudi authorities have been criticized by international rights groups for jailing several prominent activists on charges ranging from setting up an illegal organization to damaging the reputation of the country.

Saudi Arabia's legal code follows a strict version of Sharia according to its Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Judges are trained as religious scholars and have a broad scope to base verdicts and sentences on their own interpretation of religious texts.

Human rights organizations and activists have called on Saudi Arabia to end death sentences and other brutal punishments, accusing the Saudi regime of curbing freedom of speech and opinion.

Western-allied Saudi Arabia has beheaded 12 since the start of 2015. Last year, the oil-rich kingdom executed 87 people, up from 78 in 2013, according to an AFP tally. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are punishable by death in the kingdom.

Political activism can also be penalized by death, as US-ally Saudi Arabia, like neighboring Bahrain, has taken a zero tolerance approach to all attempts at protest or dissent in the kingdom.

In 2014, Saudi judges passed death sentences down to five pro-democracy advocates, including prominent activist and cleric Nimr al-Nimr, for their part in protests.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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