Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail, was flogged 50 times. The flogging will be carried out weekly, campaigners say. The flogging took place outside a mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah after Friday prayers, witnesses said. AFP news agency, quoting people at the scene, said Mr Badawi arrived at the mosque in a police car and had the charges read out to him in front of a crowd. He was then made to stand with his back to onlookers and whipped, though he remained silent, the witnesses said.
Mr Badawi, the co-founder of a now banned website called the Liberal Saudi Network, was arrested in 2012.
In addition to his sentence, Mr Badawi was ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals ($266,000; £175,000).
In 2013 he was cleared of apostasy, which could have carried a death sentence.
Last year Mr Badawi’s lawyer was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being found guilty of a range of offences in an anti-terrorism court, the Associated Press news agency reported.
Badawi has been held since mid-2012 after he founded the Free Saudi Liberals blog. He used it to criticise the kingdom’s influential clerics who follow a strict, conservative interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism, which originated in Saudi Arabia.
He was originally sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in relation to the charges, but after an appeal the judge stiffened the punishment. Following his arrest, his wife and children left the kingdom for Canada.
Rights groups argue that the case against Badawi is part of a wider crackdown on freedom of speech and dissent in Saudi Arabia since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Criticism of clerics is seen as a red line because of their prestige in the kingdom, as well as their influential role in supporting government policies.