UN rights chief urges Saudi king to halt flogging of blogger

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Saudi Arabia on Thursday to stop the serial flogging of an atheist and civil rights blogger sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes over an extended period.

Raif Badawi, who set up a website called "Free Saudi Liberals", received 50 lashes after Friday prayers last week and global rights groups say he is expected to be submitted to a second round on Friday.

"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 from his Geneva office. 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 - or leaving his religion, an offense which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.

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 U.N. 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.

On Monday, the statement added, an original sentence of 10 years against al-Khair - on charges of offending the judiciary and founding an unauthorized organization - was extended on prosecution appeal from 10 to 15 years in jail.

In the past year 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.

The world's top oil exporter, an absolute monarchy whose legal code adheres to sharia (Islamic law), regularly dismisses Western-based criticism of its rights record.

(Reported by Robert Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich)