Saudi Arabia rejects rights criticism after flogging of blogger

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia defended its human rights record on Saturday in its first public reaction to international criticism over last year's sentencing of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for "insulting Islam". The first 50 of Badawi's lashes were carried out in January, prompting strong criticism of the kingdom's rights record in Western countries, including its laws on political and religious expression and the status of Saudi women. "Saudi Arabia expresses its intense surprise and dismay at what is being reported by some media about the case of citizen Raif Badawi and his sentence," said a statement carried on state media and attributed to an unnamed "foreign ministry official". The statement said Saudi courts were independent and that the kingdom's constitution ensured the protection of human rights because it was based on Islamic Sharia law. "Saudi Arabia at the same time emphasises that it does not accept interference in any form in its internal affairs," the statement added. A Jeddah court handed Badawi his sentence after he criticised the Saudi clergy in a blog and called for changes in the way religion is practised in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, the United States' top Arab ally and birthplace of Islam, follows the strict Wahhabi Sunni Muslim school and gives the clergy control over its justice system. It does not permit the public worship of other faiths or allow them to maintain places of worship inside the country. In a new law last year it included atheism as a terrorist offence. It uses the death penalty for offences including blasphemy, apostasy and witchcraft. The kingdom has beheaded 40 people so far in 2015, rights watchdog Amnesty International said this week, based on local media reports. Political dissidents have been given long jail terms in the past year after repeatedly raising human rights issues in international media and urging the absolute monarchy to introduce elections. The kingdom is the only country in which women are forbidden to drive. Saudi women also need the permission of a male guardian, usually a close family member, to conduct many aspects of official business, including travel overseas. (Reporting by Angus McDowall, Editing by Gareth Jones)