Saudi to again postpone flogging of blogger

Dubai (AFP) - Rights group Amnesty International said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would postpone the flogging of blogger Raef Badawi, whose case has sparked international criticism, for a second week on medical grounds.

"The planned flogging of Raef 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 term.

His wife Ensaf Haidar, who has sought asylum with her children in Canada, told AFP by telephone that Amnesty had notified her of the latest delay but she had no other details.

Badawi, 30, 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 Haidar said the second round had been delayed on medical grounds.

She also said her husband's case has been referred to the supreme court, possibly paving the way for an appeal.

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, Amnesty said.

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 Raef Badawi by dragging out his ordeal".

Badawi co-founded the now-banned Saudi Liberal Network along with women's rights campaigner Suad al-Shammari, who was also accused of insulting Islam and arrested last October.

The charges against Badawi were brought after his group criticised clerics and the kingdom's notorious religious police, who have been accused of a heavy-handed enforcement of sharia Islamic law.

- Global denunciation -

On Thursday the European Union said it was closely following developments in the case.

"The EU calls on the Saudi Authorities to suspend further corporal punishments," said Catherine Ray, spokeswoman for European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.

"This type of act is not in keeping with international conventions on human rights, notably the convention against torture, which Saudi Arabia ratified," Ray said, in comments made before reports of the latest postponement.

The United States, Sweden, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have denounced the flogging as a horrific form of punishment, saying Badawi was exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Canada has also condemned the sentence and called for a pardon.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has urged ailing Saudi King Abdullah to pardon Badawi, saying flogging is "cruel and inhuman" and prohibited under international human rights law.

Global reaction to the sentence even spread into the world of professional football this week, when German politicians criticised Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich for playing a friendly match in Saudi Arabia while criticism of the kingdom's rights record swirls.

On Tuesday, Austria's chancellor threatened to withdraw support for a Saudi-financed religious dialogue centre unless it condemns Badawi's public flogging.

The same day, in an open letter published by British newspaper the Independent, 18 Nobel prize winners called on Saudi academics to condemn Badawi's punishment.

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