The public flogging of a 17-year-old girl in Pakistan's Swat Valley sparked a wave of protests across the country this weekend, but local residents fear the backlash may jeopardize a precarious peace deal between the Pakistani government and militants in the troubled region.
A grainy video depicting a girl being pinned down by three men and lashed 34 times – Islamic law punishment for allegedly being seen with a man who was not her husband – was released on private Pakistani television channels on Friday night prompting a chorus of condemnations led by President Asif Ali Zardari, who has ordered an inquiry into the incident.
"[We] have a responsibility to stand for our people if they are being subjected to atrocities by elements that are not recognized by the state as legitimate actors. Ignoring such acts of violence amounts to sanctioning impunity," says Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament from the ruling Pakistan People's Party, who was information Minister at the time the Swat Valley peace deal allowing Islamic law was signed in February. She adds that the government may be forced to review its position with regard to the peace deal in the face of growing condemnation.
In Swat's main town of Mingora, however, anger is overridden by a practical desire to maintain good relations with the Taliban whom residents say are in de- facto control of the region. The consensus is that the video, which was shot with a cellphone camera, took place in January – before the peace accord – and that the Taliban has done nothing as controversial since that time.
"There are no words strong enough to condemn the incident," says Ahmad Shah, principal of a local private school. "But the question is why now? Where was the outcry from [nongovernmental organizations] and the media when hundreds of people were being executed before the peace deal? Where were the countrywide strikes then? The situation is now on the right track. Let's give an opportunity to the peace process."
The government lacks the ability to arrest Taliban militants, even if it wished to, he adds.
"Killers are no longer roaming the streets, there are no longer public hangings," adds Sardar Ali, a clothing shop owner. "During the fighting there was chaos, now things are much better."
The February peace deal
On Feb. 16, a cease-fire was declared between the Pakistan Army and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Maulana Fazlullah. It came after three years of sporadic fighting that left 1,200 people killed, at least 250,000 displaced, and saw the destruction of more than 200 (mainly girls') schools. As part of the deal, the government agreed to allow the region to be governed by Islamic law, or "Nizam-i-adl," which was a key demand voiced by Mr. Fazlullah's father-in-law, Sufi Mohammed, who leads the movement's political wing.
Almost two months later, the streets and bazaars of Mingora have returned to some semblance of normalcy. Shopkeepers say business is back up again, gaggles of school girls covered from head-to-toe in black burqas can be seen making their way through town, and a few dozen police constables direct traffic in the former tourist hot spot. Taliban fighters are instantly recognizable, too, by the Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders and their fresh white sneakers with socks tucked over their baggy pants.
The district coordination officer, Khushal Khan, points to a relatively low crime-rate – "one-odd murder here, one abduction there" in the district since peace was restored – as evidence of a return to order. He adds that the government has now undertaken a number of steps to restore public confidence.
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.
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.