Rejecting international appeals for clemency, Saudi Arabia on Friday publicly flogged a rights advocate and blogger who was convicted of insulting Islam, news accounts said.
Rights activists citing eyewitness reports said Raif Badawi, who had previously run a reformist website, was lashed outside a mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, following Friday prayers. The flogging was the first of 20 such sessions mandated by Badawi's sentence -- a total of 1,000 lashes, 50 lashes at a time.
Badawi was also sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined more than $250,000.
The American-allied Saudi government, which is part of the U.S.-led military coalition confronting the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, brushed aside eleventh-hour urgings from the Obama administration against carrying out what State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki termed a "brutal punishment."
Word that the initial lashing had taken place reignited the outcry over the case, drawing condemnations from Western governments and major international rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Supporters took to social media to express outrage and fears for Badawi's health.
Like other hereditary monarchies in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has scant tolerance for political dissent, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings that shook the region four years ago. The kingdom employs harsh criminal penalties based on Islamic law, or sharia, including beheadings and amputations.
Saudi Arabia has also defied challenges to its deeply conservative social mores. Two women who violated the Saudi ban on driving were recently referred to an anti-terrorism court.
Badawi, who has been held since mid-2012, was initially sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for alleged cybercrimes and religious insult. When he appealed, he was handed an even more severe sentence: an additional three years in jail and 400 more lashes.
Prior to Friday's flogging, the State Department called for a review of Badawi's case and sentencing, asserting that he had exercised his "rights to freedom of expression and religion." His online debate forum, Free Saudi Liberals, has been shuttered.
Badawi, whose wife and children are living in Canada, was reported to have informed relatives on Thursday that the first session of flogging would take place the following day. Agence France-Presse, quoting witnesses, reported that he was brought to the scene in a police car and whipped as a crowd looked on. He did not cry out during it, the agency said.
Rights advocates say flogging, which can result in complications including nerve damage and infections, amounts to torture.