Viral Video Raises Taliban Fears in Pakistan

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Str / AFP / Getty

Apparently filmed on a mobile phone, the video image shows two men pinning down a burqa-clad woman as a bearded man in a turban flogs her with a whip

A viral video is raising an outcry in Pakistan — and highlighting the fact that in some parts of western Pakistan, the government is no longer in charge and the Taliban is. Filmed in the Swat Valley, where the government recently signed a controversial peace deal with the Taliban, the video apparently shows a 17-year-old girl pinned down by as many as three men — among them her brother — while a fourth flogs her repeatedly, chastising her for having an alleged affair. She lets out a shriek with every lash, pleading for mercy. Dozens of men look on, but nobody speaks out to stop the lashing. (See the video that has raised alarms in Pakistan.)

The government's agreement with the Taliban in Swat included the imposition of religious law in the area, a move many legal experts and women's-rights groups had cautioned against. The valley, once a prime destination for Pakistan's honeymooners and hippies, was transformed in recent years into the front line of Pakistan's domestic war on terrorism. More than 1,500 people have been killed there, and at least 100,000 have fled. A cease-fire is now in place in exchange for the imposition of Shari'a law. But reports of the curtailment of women's rights and activities are now rampant; women have been barred from leaving their homes and simply walking on the streets in many towns. (See pictures of Pakistan's tense border with Afghanistan.)

Human-rights activists from the region insist that the girl in the video and the countless other victims in Swat are too helpless to speak out. "Who can stop the Taliban when they claim to be working in the name of Islam?" asked Yasmine Khan, program coordinator for the Female Human Rights Organization (FEHRO) for Swat, who recently fled to Islamabad after allegedly receiving death threats by Taliban militants. "Things are out of hand, and the government cannot control things." (See pictures of the front line in the war against the Taliban.)

However, the Swat-based Taliban denies that the incident took place in the valley. Several officials and commentators have expressed skepticism that the men performing the punishment in the video were Taliban militants. A local news organization noted that were it up to the Taliban, the victim "would have been shot." The 17-year-old alleged to be in the video now denies that she was the burqa-clad girl beaten in the footage. She failed to appear at Pakistan's Supreme Court for a hearing on Monday.

Journalists in Swat speak of an atmosphere of fear in the valley; reporters say they are fearful of speaking out as well, afraid that they will be targeted by Taliban angry over the leak of the video. One journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "We are the prime suspects." (Check out a story about Talibanistan.)

The Supreme Court and its Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, are not keeping silent, however. While Chaudhry says the authenticity of the video must be established (noting that it could be part of a scheme against those in Swat "demanding the application of Shari'a law"), he voiced outrage at what the footage appeared to portray. "[This] certainly constitutes a serious violation of law and fundamental rights of the citizens of the country," he declared on Monday during a hearing on the incident. Chaudhry reprimanded several senior officials, including Pakistan Attorney General Sardar Latif Khosa, for failing to take immediate action: "Before the video became public, what were you doing?" Chaudhry has asked the court to reconvene following a 15-day investigation.

Pakistanis see Chaudhry's comments as his first act of political muscle-flexing since his dramatic restoration to power in late March. The Chief Justice was dismissed two years ago by then-President Pervez Musharraf because he would not support Musharraf's assumption of dictatorial power. When Musharraf's successor, Asif Ali Zardari, reneged on an agreement to restore Chaudhry to the Supreme Court, widespread demonstrations a few weeks ago led to his reinstatement. Chaudhry has probably the highest reserve of moral authority in the country.

But is it enough to safeguard rights guaranteed by the country's secular constitution? Hours after the Chief Justice's calls for an inquiry, federal investigators were reported to have taken testimony from the alleged victim. However, she once again denied being the woman in the video. Sherry Rehman, a former Information Minister and member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party believes in Chaudhry's commitment to pursuing the case. "If anything like this surfaces again," she says, "it will not be tolerated." But Rehman notes that the government will proceed with caution for fear of disrupting the fragile cease-fire.

Khan, the women's-rights activist, however, is pessimistic that even Chaudhry can get anything done. She says the Supreme Court inquiry is merely smoke and mirrors and that it will take a "miracle" to bring justice to Swat. "Until now, nobody knows who murdered Benazir Bhutto," she says. "Where is that committee? Where are those results? Do you think anyone will investigate or help the poor people of Swat?"