April 3, 2009 -- Clad in a dark blue burka, she is held down by two different men, her face rubbed in the dirt. A third man in a black turban whips her lower back more than 30 times in a minute and a half, her teenage voice screaming out in terror and pain.
"Stop. It's killing me." "For God's sake, stop," she sobs. "I swear on my father and grandmother I won't do it again."
Across this country today Pakistanis listened to her screams and watched her writhing on national television. The young woman, 16- or 17-years-old, is a resident of northern Swat, the Pakistani valley where the local government is negotiating with the Taliban.
No evidence of such a relationship was ever given, but the rumor of such a relationship, according to the local Taliban spokesman, was actually enough to be stoned to death. The punishment in this case, he told a local TV channel, was "lenient."
For the last seven weeks the provincial government that oversees Pakistan's volatile Northwest Frontier Province has been using a former militant to negotiate with a Taliban that, over the last year and a half, has blown up more than 200 schools and killed more than 100 police and soldiers in Swat. The deal the government hopes to implement would restrict the military to their barracks, allow the Taliban to implement sharia, or Islamic law, and remove armed Taliban in the streets.
But critics have seized on the video as evidence that men who whip teenage girls in front of cell phone cameras are not to be negotiated with. And, they say, the provincial government has virtually handed over a third of Pakistan's northwest to its enemies, choosing to do so from a position of weakness after the Taliban terrorized the most peaceful and liberal part of northwest Pakistan.
The incident in the video took place months ago, according to local journalists, long before the peace negotiations began. But Swat's residents say nothing has changed for the better since the peace deal, and even if this video wasn't filmed in the last 7 weeks, the Taliban continue to administer their cruel forms of justice in the streets and continue to keep themselves heavily armed.
'There is No Law' in the Swat Valley
"Nobody can walk around at night. Very few people can even walk around during the day," said one resident of Mingora, describing a terrified population. "There is no law. Police are still restricted to the police station."
"The militants are patrolling on the roads and they are occupying some people's homes… and even they are threatening the girls who go to school," said Zubair Torwali, a human rights activist from Swat. "There is no government writ. The writ of the Taliban can be seen through the whole valley."
The video of the incident, which has been distributed widely in the last day thanks to an Islamabad-based filmmaker, is now on sale in Swat's bazaars, according to local residents. Some journalists in the area said they had the tape long before it went on sale late last month, but were simply too afraid of retribution to broadcast it.
Even a senior member of the provincial government admits that if the Taliban are going to continue to terrorize and threaten the people of Swat, the peace negotiations should be questioned.
"Nowhere in this process has anyone said or accepted that individuals can stand up and start this kind of activity," says Bushra Gohar, the Awami National Party's senior vice president. " So long as the Taliban spokesman calls this type of act "lenient," she said, " then there's no need for the continuing for the peace talks. If human rights are going to be violated with impunity, what is the purpose being served?"
In two separate media interviews, Muslim Khan, the spokesman for the Taliban in Swat, admitted that the man whipping the girl was a member of the Taliban. He also said that the people holding her down were members of her own family, a claim that could not be confirmed. He added that had Islamic judges recently installed in Swat as part of the peace negotiations been present at the scene, she would have been ordered stoned to death.
"She had to be punished," Khan told Geo News. "The punishment administered by local Taliban was in our knowledge and they did the right thing, but the method was wrong," he added, saying the punishment should have been carried out inside.
Human Rights Acitivists Say the Taliban Getting Stronger
Still, the provincial government maintains that it has no plans to abandon the peace deal and try and defeat the Taliban with the military, who had been fighting in Swat on and off for more than a year.
"I personally have concerns about this whole process, but of course I have more concerns when the military was there," Gohar said. "Once the development process has started, then the people will stand up. But they're still in a state of trauma. What we need to do is create a bit of peace for them and they can recover."
But locals are far more pessimistic. Angered by civilian casualties from the military campaign and a corrupt, slow court system, they had hoped the peace deal would bring calm and swift justice to the valley.
But instead, they fear the Taliban is getting stronger and that the fighting will resume in a few weeks. "Swat has fallen to the Taliban," Towali said. "It's the truth. Everyone knows that."
Asked about the Taliban and whether they can be trusted, one resident mentioned a Pashto saying: "If you let a snake in the room with people and expect the snake not to bite the people, you'd be a fool. Because the snake's job is to bite." Asked if the snake was biting again, the resident said, "Whenever it can, it does."