Saudi Arabia Refers Blogger Flogging Case to Supreme Court Amidst Criticism

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Published Friday, January 16, 2015

Updated at 7:23 pm (GMT+2): The case of a Saudi blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, which has been widely criticized by rights groups, has been referred to the Supreme Court by the King's office, the BBC reported on Friday.

The news came hours after Saudi Arabia postponed a weekly flogging of 50 lashes for Raif Badawi due to his ailing health.

Badawi, who set up a website called "Free Saudi Liberals," was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes over an extended period of time. He received 50 lashes after Friday prayers last week, and he was expected to be submitted to a second round on Friday.

Badawi is expected to undergo 20 more weekly beatings until his punishment is complete.

In a brief newsbreak without quotes, the BBC said Badawi's wife had told it the decision had given the blogger hope that the authorities want to end his punishment.

"The prison doctor saw (Raif) Badawi's health does not allow his flogging today," Ensaf Haidar, Badawi's wife, had said earlier on Friday, speaking to AFP by telephone from Canada, where she has sought asylum with her three children.

Haidar said Friday's flogging was postponed because her husband's wounds had not yet healed, an explanation also given by rights group Amnesty International.

"But it will probably still take place next Friday," she said.

Earlier, Amnesty also spoke of Badawi's unhealed wounds, terming the punishment as "macabre and outrageous."

During a medical exam ahead of the flogging, "the doctor concluded that the wounds had not yet healed properly and that (Badawi) would not be able to withstand another round of lashes at this time," a statement said.

It added that the doctor recommended the flogging be postponed until next week.

"Not only does this postponement... expose the utter brutality of this punishment, it underlines its outrageous inhumanity. The notion that Raif Badawi must be allowed to heal so that he can suffer this cruel punishment again and again is macabre and outrageous," Said Boumedouha, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed on Thursday 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 on Thursday. 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 Islamic sharia law.

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 nine 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.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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