(Beirut) – King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia should overturn the lashing and prison term for a blogger imprisoned for his views and immediately grant him a pardon. Saudi authorities lashed Raif Badawi 50 times on January 9, 2015, in front of a crowded mosque in Jeddah, part of a judicial sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for setting up a liberal website and allegedly insulting religious authorities.

The charges against Badawi are based solely on his peaceful exercise of his right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Badawi established his online platform in 2008 to encourage debate on religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have detained Badawi in Jeddah’s Buraiman prison since his arrest on June 17, 2012.

“Corporal punishment is nothing new in Saudi Arabia, but publicly lashing a peaceful activist merely for expressing his ideas sends an ugly message of intolerance,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Saudi Arabia is showing a willingness to inflict vicious and cruel punishments on writers whose views it rejects.”

A witness to the flogging in front of the Juffali Mosque in central Jeddah following Friday prayers told Human Rights Watch:

There was a very large gathering [of people]. They brought out Raif from the prison car and put him in front of people gathered in a circle around him. Then the officer lashed him 50 times. After the lashing the gathered people shouted in one voice saying “God is great,” and they took Raif and returned him to prison.

The witness said that Badawi suffered visible bruising as a result of the flogging, but was able to walk back to the prison car on his own.

The Jeddah Criminal Court originally convicted Badawi in July 2013 and sentenced him to seven years in prison and 600 lashes, but an appeals court in May 2014 increased the punishment to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. The appeals court judgment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, sentenced Badawi to five years in prison and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (US$266,000) for setting up a liberal website, and another five years in prison and 1,000 public lashes for “blasphemous phrases on his Facebook page and disobedience to his father.” The judgment bans Badawi from any media work or foreign travel for 10 years after his release from prison.

The judgment provides that the lashes are to be carried out in 20 sessions of 50 lashes in front of the Juffali Mosque, with at least one week between sessions. Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that lashing is generally carried out with a light wooden cane, and the blows are distributed across the back and legs, which leaves bruising but normally does not break the skin.

International human rights law prohibits judicial verdicts imposing corporal punishment, including lashing, as constituting torture, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997. The United Nations Committee against Torture, in its 2002 comments on Saudi Arabia’s first and only report to the committee, criticized “[t]he sentencing to, and imposition of, corporal punishments by judicial and administrative authorities, including, in particular, flogging and amputation of limbs, that are not in conformity with the Convention.”

The flogging is the latest in a series of harsh penalties handed down against Saudi human rights activists and peaceful dissidents, Human Rights Watch said. Those prosecuted include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Badawi’s lawyer, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in July 2014 solely on account of his peaceful criticism of Saudi human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media, and Fadhil al-Manasif, who faces 14 years in prison on charges stemming largely from his assistance to international journalists covering eastern province protests over the treatment of Shia Muslims in the Sunni-dominated country in 2011-12.

Su`ad al-Shammari, another liberal activist who worked with Badawi to set up his website, was arrested in October 2014 in Jeddah. A Saudi activist knowledgeable about the case told Human Rights Watch that she faces the charge of “insulting the messenger and the hadith [sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed]” in connection with 2013 tweets that allegedly criticized religious authorities. Al-Shammari is also detained in Jeddah’s Bureiman prison.

Another prominent human rights activist, Mikhlif al-Shammari, was convicted by the Khobar Criminal Court on November 3, 2014, and sentenced to two years in prison and 200 lashes for, in part, visiting prominent Shia figures in the eastern province as a good-will gesture. The Specialized Criminal Court had previously convicted him in 2013 in a separate trial on charges of “sowing discord” and criticizing Saudi officials in his online writings, and sentenced him to five years in prison and a 10-year ban on travel abroad.

“The cruel and unjust treatment of Badawi is sadly just one piece of a broader crackdown on peaceful dissent in Saudi Arabia,” Whitson said.