AFP - Pakistan ordered an investigation Friday into a video of a woman being flogged in the former resort of Swat, where the government signed an agreement with a pro-Taliban cleric to allow sharia law.
Apparently filmed on a mobile phone, the video shows two men pinning down a burka-clad woman by her feet and shoulders, while a bearded man in a turban flogs her 34 times with a whip as she screams in agony.
"Hold her," shouts the man with the whip. "Hold her legs," he shouts, as he thrashes the woman's buttocks with the crack of the whip.
The February deal to make Islamic law the only justice system in the former ski resort triggered alarm around the world among those fearful it would embolden militants throughout the northwest, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Thousands of Taliban followers had spent nearly two years waging a terrifying campaign to enforce sharia law in Swat, beheading opponents, bombing girls' schools, outlawing entertainment and fighting government forces.
Samar Minallah, who works for a Pakistan human rights organisation, said she was given the tape by people in Swat which she distributed to the Western media to highlight the cruelties endured by women in the region.
"This girl was flogged on the basis of suspicious and false evidence. She is 17 years old. She comes from the Kala Killey village of Kabal district in Swat. The entire village knows she is innocent," Minallah told AFP.
There was no independent confirmation of the woman's age, nor the reason for the flogging -- a common punishment handed down by Taliban hardliners for a variety of misdemeanours in Swat and other parts of northwest Pakistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who has yet to finally endorse the peace deal, condemned the flogging and called for the arrest of those responsible, although at least one member of cabinet hinted that the footage might not be credible.
"The president was shocked over this act of barbarism and had asked for a report from the government and local administration," his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement released by state media.
"We are investigating the matter," interior ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters in the southern city of Sukkur.
"But sometimes anti-state elements make fake or artificial footage or images to bring disrepute onto Pakistan," said Malik.
Swat residents and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government said the tape was filmed on January 3 -- before the controversial agreement to enforce Islamic law was signed with pro-Taliban cleric Soofi Mohammad.
Muslim Khan, the Taliban spokesman in Swat, claimed the video was old.
"This is a one-year-old video. It happened when the people of Swat were in a state of war. It was done by local Taliban and the central leadership was not aware of it," he told AFP.
"The woman had illicit relations with her father-in-law. Both confessed before the sentence was carried out. The punishment for such crime is correct but we don't agree with the procedure they adopted," he said.
"The flogging of a woman has to be carried out in a closed room.
"Releasing the video one year later is clearly an attempt to sabotage the peace deal. No such incident has happened since the deal was signed on February 16. The video is a conspiracy against sharia law," he said.
"There has been no such incident since the signing of the peace agreement," NWFP information minister Iftikhar Hussain told a news conference.
Local officials and residents differed as to why the woman had been flogged.
Some said she left home without a blood relative or husband -- which is strictly banned by the Taliban so they punished her in deterrence.
Others said people told the Taliban that a boy and a girl were involved in illicit relations. They captured both from different houses and both denied the charges, the residents said.