- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani authorities ordered inquiries Friday into a video showing the public flogging of a screaming woman in a northwestern valley where officials have yielded to Taliban demands for Islamic law.

A militant spokesman defended the punishment, fueling a furor that cast more doubt on a deteriorating peace deal in the Swat Valley that U.S. officials fear has created another haven for allies of al Qaeda.

Officials vowed to impose Islamic law, or Shariah, in the valley in February to halt 18 months of terror and bloody fighting between militants and security forces that has killed hundreds of people.

Shariah has not yet formally been introduced and provincial officials say that, in any case, they would not condone such whippings or the harsh brand of Islamic law practiced under Afghanistan’s former Taliban rule. But the video provided a reminder of how hard-liners in control of much of Swat Valley interpret Islamic strictures.

The video was believed to have been taken with a mobile phone, and was broadcast widely Friday on Pakistani television channels.

The two-minute video shows the woman face down on the ground with two men holding her arms and feet. Her all-enveloping burqa has been hitched up to expose a pair of pink pants.

A third man in a black turban with a long beard whips her backside more than a dozen times, causing her to scream repeatedly and shout “Stop it, stop it! It is painful!” A crowd of men watches silently in the background.

It was not clear who ordered the lashing and when it occurred.

Muslim Khan, spokesman for the Swat Taliban, said the militants publicly flogged a woman nine months ago over allegations that she had an illicit relationship with her father-in-law, but he was not sure if the video showed that incident.

He defended the punishment, although he said it should not have been done in public and should have been carried out by a boy who had not yet reached puberty.

Provincial government spokesman Mian Iftikhar Hussein said the incident occurred Jan. 3 - before the peace agreement was signed.

The embattled government of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province struck the deal with a hard-line cleric who helped secure a cease-fire. However, President Asif Ali Zardari’s office says he will not sign the bill introducing Islamic law unless he is satisfied that peace has been restored - a prospect which seemed to recede Friday after a sharp outcry by rights groups.

“It is not a peace accord in Swat, instead it is a surrender by the government of Pakistan,” said Asma Jehangir, head of Pakistan’s main human rights organization. The flogging “is against all the women of Pakistan.”

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Mr. Zardari, described the flogging as “barbarism” that should not be tolerated. He said Mr. Zardari has ordered authorities to apprehend those responsible - a near-impossible task in a zone from which the police and moderate tribal leaders have fled in fear.

Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, Pakistan’s recently restored chief justice, also opened an inquiry, ordering security officials to produce the victim in the Supreme Court in time for a hearing on April 6.

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