KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 26, 2011— -- About 200 people listen to a Taliban mullah describe why a man and woman deserve to be killed. A few dozen spectators – people from the local community -- start throwing rocks at the woman, who had already been placed in a 4-foot-deep hole. They throw with relish and yell, "Allah akbar."
At one point a large rock strikes her head and she falls down, her burqa red with blood. After the rock throwing ends, a few people debate whether she should be shot. Eventually one of the spectators shoots her with an AK-47. She falls into the hole, out of sight. There is a short period of absolute silence, and then the spectators turn to each other and start talking.
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Then the man is brought into the crowd and blindfolded with his own tunic. The same scene proceeds, but with larger rocks and more abandon. He cries as he is killed.
That's a dispassionate description of video of the first documented stoning in Afghanistan since the Taliban were in power, which took place in October. The video is shocking and nauseating, and most people who watch an unedited version of the footage need to look away.
The cell phone video, first obtained by the BBC and then independently obtained by ABC News, was filmed by one of the spectators at the stoning, which occurred in a conservative district near the Afghan-Tajik border. It was also posted online, viewed by about 6,000 people.
The brutality of the event is one of the most outrageous examples of the Taliban imposing their own version of justice in Afghanistan nearly nine years after the war began. It shows how their reach in historically peaceful northern Afghanistan recently expanded to the point where they could hold a public execution at 10:30 a.m. without any fear of retribution.
But the video and the story behind it also shows how even some conservative elements of Afghan society reject Taliban punishments -- and yet aren't strong enough to resist a well-funded, well-armed insurgency.
The first victim, 19-year-old Siddiqa, had recently been sold off against her wishes to a rich, local family for $9,000, according to local officials. After their marriage ceremony, she ran off with another man -- 25-year-old Khayyam -- first to Kunduz City and then to Kunar, in eastern Afghanistan.
That Khayyam ran off caused minimal reaction. He was already married and had two children, but in this area, men are allowed to have up to four wives. But Siddiqa's running off was a scandal. She had already held the marriage ceremony with the man whose family paid a dowry, and she left without informing her family.
Nonetheless, the elders of the Mullah Quli village in the Archi district responded moderately. They held a meeting in which they decided if Khayyam's family paid the same $9,000, both Khayyam and Siddiqa would be allowed to return, without retribution. They were invited back.
But the night they returned, the Taliban entered the families' homes at 2:00 am and forcibly took the couple. The stoning took place that morning.
"When a married woman commits adultery, she will be struck by stones -- this is called sangsar in Arabic," the Taliban mullah declares before the stoning begins. "The women you see here today committed adultery with this man. She has admitted this herself not once, but many times… Islamic law will be enforced here in Kunduz, by the grace of God. They will both be punished, these two people."
The Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law is largely unpopular, but local residents do not have a choice when threatened with a well-armed force. The families did not want this punishment, nor did their respective tribes. But local officials say cousins of the victims were forced to attend the stoning, and nobody in the local police or government attempted to prosecute the stone throwers.
"If the government was stronger and the government took responsibility to protect its inhabitants, I don't think any other parallel individuals or parallel procedures or bodies would dare to come to finish the life of a human being that easily," said Fauzia Kofi, a female member of parliament from northern Afghanistan. "It's a lack of education, lack of awareness, lack of transparency and accountability -- and that's why it's very easy to kill a woman."
The Taliban were able to impose their version of justice in part because northern Afghanistan has been neglected in the post-Taliban administration. Kunduz province, where the stoning took place, is one of the primary economic hubs in northern Afghanistan and was one of the safest areas in the country. Until 2008, there was little violence and little evidence of Taliban presence.
But today, across large areas of northern Afghanistan, inadequate and corrupt governance has combined with determined efforts by militants, and areas that were once safe are now under strong Taliban influence, and in some cases, under Taliban control.
That was especially true last fall, when the stoning took place. Since then, the police have improved slightly and U.S. special operations forces have dramatically increased their targeting of mid-level and senior Taliban commanders. Conventional forces have also launched operations in some districts where the Taliban were especially strong.
But still, residents in Kunduz and Baghlan, the province just to the south, fear that when the winter ends, insurgents and criminals will quickly move back into districts where the U.S. has little presence and where the government is weak and skeptical of the West's ability to bring security.
For Afghan human rights advocates, the video is another sign the government has not done a good enough job at establishing a rule of law that would reduce the Taliban's influence. It is also a sign, they say, that poor education promotes violence.
"That understanding of Islam that Taliban has is a … lack of the proper understanding of Islam and Islamic values," Kofi said. "The Islam that I represent actually saved women from being buried alive 1,400 years back. I don't know what kind of Islam they represent, that they can kill so easily."