An activist who has a wife and three children in Sherbrooke, Que., underwent the first round of 50 lashes in public after morning prayers today in Saudi Arabia, human rights group Amnesty International says.

Raif Badawi was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million Saudi Arabian riyals (about $315,000 Cdn) for offences including creating an online forum for public debate and insulting Islam.

The flogging will be carried out over a period of 20 weeks, Amnesty International said.

“We received confirmation that the 50 first lashes were given this morning," Mireille Elchacar told the CBC Radio show Quebec AM, adding that Badawi spoke with his wife not long after receiving his first 50 lashings.

"Of course she is devastated. I think he was not very fond of giving details to his wife to not scare her, so he did not give any more details."

Elchacar, who is a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, said Badawi is not in good health.

"They decided to make him see a doctor before the lashing  to make sure he is in good health to receive the lashing ... After the lashing, he was sent directly to his prison cell."

Amnesty International quoted a witness as saying the flogging took place before the public and security officials in front of the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah.

"The whole ordeal lasted around 15 minutes. Afterwards, he was put back in the bus and taken away," the group said in a statement.

Badawi, who was first arrested in June 2012 for  setting up the "Free Saudi Liberals" website, is sentenced to 50 lashings every Friday for the next 19 weeks.

Prosecutors had demanded he be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but a judge dismissed that charge.

Wanted to foster debate

Elchacar said Amnesty International considers Badawi a "prisoner of conscience."

"He just wanted to open debate about the religious subjects, social subjects, political subjects, such topics which are not open to debate in traditional media in Saudi Arabia," Elchacar said.

Amnesty International is calling for Badawi's sentence to be quashed and for him to be released immediately and unconditionally so he can join his family in Canada.

On Thursday, the United States asked Riyadh to cancel the sentence of 1,000 lashes.

Wife feared for safety

Badawi's wife and three children settled as refugees in Sherbrooke after his arrest.  

Ensaf Haider said she feared for the safety of their children and herself in Saudi Arabia. She fled via Egypt, Lebanon, and finally made it to Canada in October 2013.

"I felt threatened by those who demanded Raif’s imprisonment," said Haider. 

Dozens of protesters in Sherbrooke gathered in front of city hall Friday afternoon to denounce the sentence. 

"I've been following this story for a year and I've been to other demonstrations," said protester Judy Miller, who added that she supports the family and freedom of expression.

Badawi's website included articles critical of senior Saudi religious figures and others from Muslim history.

Saudi Arabia's legal code follows sharia Islamic law. Judges are trained as religious scholars and have broad scope to base verdicts and sentences on their own interpretation of religious texts.

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday condemned the killings of 12 people in an attack on a French satirical newspaper which had lampooned Islam. But it has also in the past called for an international law to criminalize insults to the world's main religions.

With files from Reuters