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Outrage over Taliban flogging of Pakistani girl could threaten peace deal

A video of a girl being lashed 34 times for allegedly being seen with a man who was not her husband has prompted a chorus of condemnations led by President Asif Ali Zardari.

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Debris from schools is being collected while makeshift tent schools have been erected for children from 13 of the more than 200 schools that were destroyed by militants before the peace deal. Hospitals have been reopened, and applicants are being invited to take part in a crash course to become police constables. Nearly all the local police had quit the force in the face of killings and threats over the past three years.

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Permission from 'good Taliban'

Mr. Khan, who was kidnapped by Taliban fighters on his entrance to Mingora prior to his first day of work in the district, now terms the incident a "misunderstanding." He says that, in the absence of adequate state machinery, he has to work under the permission of certain "good Taliban" in order to get things accomplished.

Though mid-level Taliban commanders routinely attempt to "out-Islam" each other by forbidding, for example, female high school students from taking their exams, or prohibiting an eye doctor from carrying out his work, appeals to the Taliban leadership are usually able to resolve the issues, he says.

The much-vaunted Islamic courts are partly operational, hearing mainly financial or land disputes that are settled through a quick verdict by Qazis (religious scholars, who were already in place and working as magistrates before the peace-deal). Opposing parties describe their disputes, which could center around a bounced check or a defaulted loan, to the Qazi who in turn makes a swift decision and orders the families to come together and shake hands. There are few documents involved and no lawyers. One hundred and fifteen new cases have been heard since the peace deal, of which 50 have been resolved. "People seem to prefer it this way," says court clerk Zafar Ali. "Things are done a lot sooner."

Even Aftab Alam, who, as the district bar association president is the elected leader of the more than 300 lawyers who have remained out of work since regular courts stopped working, sees working with Taliban as the only way forward.

"The restoration of regular courts can only follow a permanent peace," he says, adding that the government must make good on his promise to officially sign the Islamic regulations so their jurisdiction is formalized and criminal cases can be heard. Last week, cleric Sufi Mohammed threatened to step away from the peace deal if the document was not signed by Pakistan's secular government.

"If President Zardari fails to sign the draft of the sharia [Islamic law] regulation 2009, it shows he is willing to hand over the region to hands of extremists," says Mr. Alam. "What has been shown or [broadcast] is the tip of the iceberg. A lot more criminal acts have been done but no one was there to help us."

Though trained as a secular lawyer, Alam says that implementing Islamic law regulations "to the letter and spirit" may prevent the worst forms of punishments carried out by Taliban during what effectively was a period of war.

"It is not ideal but we are making it work," adds Mr. Shah, the school principal.

For now, however, national momentum appears to moving in the opposite direction.

Pakistan's popular Chief Justice Ifthikar Chaudhry on Friday scheduled a hearing into the flogging incident and ordered the victim to be produced before the court on Monday, while thousands of rights activists took to the streets of Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi on Saturday to protest.

A slew of high-profile religious scholars branded the flogging of a woman in public as "unIslamic," while women's rights activists in Lahore vowed to continue to voice their anger over the next three days.

"The government has gone too far in issuing concessions to religious extremists but has gotten nothing in return. This incident is an indication of the type of society [the Taliban] have in mind for the rest of the country," says Dr. Mehdi Hassan, a Lahore-based senior member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan who took part in a street demonstration on Saturday.