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ISLAMABAD, April 3 A furore gripped the country on Friday after the surfacing of video footage showing the flogging in public of a 17-year-old girl in Swat by Taliban.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has ordered an inquiry.

Condemning the incident, he termed it a shameful happening which had tarnished the image of the country.

The whole episode was against the principles and teachings of Islam. “Islam teaches us to treat women politely,” the prime minister said in a statement. He said the government would take every possible measure to protect women's rights.

Members of civil society and public representatives reacted strongly to the incident and expressed fears that such practices might spread to the rest of the country.

Television channels kept screening throughout the day the footage of the 17-year-old girl who was flogged 34 times in broad daylight, encircled by a crowd of local men.

The amateur video, apparently shot on a mobile phone, shows the girl, wearing a blue burqa, lying on the ground face down. Her legs, hands and head are held by two men and a third, bearded man wearing a turban is shown whipping her repeatedly.

After the first couple of lashes, the girl starts to scream loudly, but no one moves to help her. “Please, please,” she shouts in Pushto. “Stop it, please. For God's sake, stop it, I am dying.”

A man off-camera is giving orders to his companions. “Hold her feet tightly. Lift her burqa a bit.”

The public flogging continued for several minutes, after which the wailing girl is dragged by a group of armed men to a nearby building.

The video shown by several news channels sent a wave of shock, anger and depression across the country.

Initially, some elements tried to downplay the significance of the flogging, saying it was not clear if it was a recent incident and even going to the extent of speculating that the incident had not taken place.

A leader of the Awami National Party, without mincing his words, said the video release was aimed at undermining the Swat peace agreement.

But Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told some TV channels that it was the work of Taliban. He termed the action justified, saying that the girl had been seen out of her house with a man who was not her husband and it was enough to punish her for what he said was an 'un-Islamic' act.

Several human rights and women's groups accused the government of giving a free hand to extremist religious groups to enforce their own brand of Shariat in Swat and some other parts of northern Pakistan.

“We strongly condemn this barbaric and heinous crime and demand immediate action against those involved in this inhuman act,” the Women's Parliamentary Caucus said in a statement.

The caucus secretary, Nafisa Shah, said neither Islam nor the Constitution allowed such acts. Instead, they protected the fundamental rights of women. She said the caucus would take up the issue in parliament and with the federal and provincial governments.

Several NGOs called for immediate action by the government.

Taking suo motu notice of the incident, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry termed it a serious violation of fundamental rights and ordered the interior secretary to present the victim before his court on Monday.

While NWFP minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain and Tehrik-i-Taliban Swat spokesman Muslim Khan claimed in the valley that the incident had taken place before the Feb 16 peace agreement, local people said it had taken place around two weeks ago at Kala Kalae, Kabal sub-district.

Both said the surfacing of the video footage was a conspiracy to sabotage the deal.

The militants claimed that the girl had an affair with a boy, but the version was challenged by a local social activist. He told Dawn by phone that a local boy had sent a proposal for marrying her, but her family turned it down.

The boy, who had vowed to avenge the refusal, later joined the militants.

On the day the purported flogging took place, a neighbour had been called to fix a fault in an electric power generator at the girl's home. All of a sudden a number of militants forced their way into the house, dragging the girl out of her house.

Speaking at a press conference in Swat, provincial Minister Iftikhar Hussain said the incident had taken place on Jan 3, 45 days before the signing of the peace agreement.

He alleged that an NGO activist, Samar Minallah, had released the video as part of a conspiracy. He said her brother had been a provincial minister in the government of Gen Pervez Musharraf. “Where were these people when innocents were being slaughtered and bodies were pulled out of graves.”

The minister said the incident was condemnable and should be investigated, but at the same time flashing it several months after its occurrence raised suspicions.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the sentence of whipping could be awarded to both men and women under Shariat. He said the 'sentence' had been executed during 'war time'.

Muslim Khan said the girl should have been stoned to death, but the Taliban had only flogged her because qazi courts had not been set up at the time.

He asked the media not to air the footage, saying it was a conspiracy against the peace deal.

A spokesman for Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-i-Muhammadi, Amir Izzat Khan, said the manner in which the sentence had been executed was against religious principles. In Lahore, rights activists and members of civil society said they would hold a peace rally on The Mall on Saturday to give a message to extremists that they would not be allowed to pursue their 'nefarious designs'. They also condemned recent terrorist attacks in Lahore.

They urged people to stand against extremism in all forms because the governments and the army had failed to contain it.

Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, condemned the public flogging of the girl and said such terrorism and barbarity were intolerable.

She said that according to HRCP reports, the incident had taken place a month ago, not because the girl had committed adultery, but because her family had turned down a marriage proposal for her. She said the girl had gone out of her home with her father-in-law.

She accused the federal and provincial governments of succumbing to the terrorists and giving them a free hand to attack people and disgrace women. She said that by entering into a peace accord with Taliban, the government had left citizens at the mercy of extremists.

“The government has handed over Swat to those who have played with the lives of people. If they are really popular, why this was not reflected in the last general elections?” she wondered.

Ms Jahangir criticised the leaders who were claiming that peace had been restored in Swat. “Why don't they take their families there and stay just for one week?”

In reply to a question about recent terrorist attacks, she said cricket players and police had nothing to with drone attacks.

Iqbal Haider, of the HRCP, said Gen (retd) Musharraf had signed six agreements with Taliban from 2003 to 2007. Two more agreements were signed afterwards, literally surrendering the state to the extremists.

He said there was no peace in Swat, girls were still not going to schools and people were being harassed.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who has yet to finally endorse the peace deal, condemned the flogging and called for the arrest of those responsible.

“The president was shocked over this act of barbarism and asked for a report from the government and local administration,” his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

Pakistan Muslim League-N chief Nawaz Sharif said in a statement that the incident was an open violation of the Constitution and tantamount to humiliation of humanity. He said the government should ensure suppression of such brutal happenings.

Muttahida chief Altaf Husain, deploring the whipping, called for punishing the perpetrators by death. He suggested that Sunday be observed as a black day to express outrage.

Briefing journalists in Naudero after a meeting of Pakistan People's Party's central executive committee, information secretary Fauzia Wahab called the incident barbaric.

Interior Affairs Adviser Rehman Malik told reporters in Sukkur “We are investigating the matter. But sometimes anti-state elements make fake or artificial footage or images to bring disrepute to Pakistan.”

Khawar Ghumman in Islamabad, Hameedullah Khan in Mingora, Waseem Ahmad Shah in Peshawar and Intikhab Hanif in Lahore contributed to the report.