Video of Taliban-style justice being meted-out in a northern Pakistani enclave appeared on local television channels Friday, providing vivid evidence of the militant groups' penchant for ruthlessly enforcing their own controversial Islamic laws in an area firmly under their control.
The video, released by human rights activists to private TV channels, shows bearded Taliban militants in the scenic Swat Valley forcibly dragging a woman to the middle of a group of hundreds of men standing on a grassy field, ostensibly to witness her punishment.
Moments later, the woman — described by her Islamic extremist "prosecutors" as a 17-year-old accused of adultery — is thrown to the ground, face covered, and flogged several times by one of the men as the onlookers shout "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great).
The video immediately reignited concerns over the Pakistani government's decision in February to strike a controversial deal in Swat with the militants. Pakistan's U.S.-allied government accepted the imposition of Islamic "shariah" law.
The deal in Swat brought an end to almost two years of fighting between the Pakistani military and Islamic extremists, led by local Taliban militants. Critics, however, said at the time that conceding ground to the Taliban would almost certainly embolden them, possibly expanding their quest for shariah law to other areas of Pakistan.
"What is there to prove now that this deal was right? How can anyone defend such treatment of women?" Tahira Abdullah, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist asked during an interview with CBS News. "You concede an inch to these people and they will demand a mile."
Izzat Khan, a spokesman for Sufi Mohammad, spiritual leader of the Taliban in Swat, denied that the flogging was carried out by members of his group. "We have nothing to do with these people, we don't know who they are. This action has been carried out to bring disrepute to our group," Khan told reporters in Swat.
A Pakistani government official, however, confirmed to CBS News that the incident was indeed linked to the militants in Swat, who firmly enforce their own version of justice. "I have seen the original footage and this is horrible. The young woman was yelling to be shot dead rather than humiliated publicly but her punishers just didn't care," he told CBS News on condition of anonymity.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan's de-facto Interior Minister, condemned the incident and promised to investigate the matter.
But Western diplomats warn that the case highlights the difficult challenge Pakistan faces as it deals with ideologically-charged militants who are eager to capture more territory across the country and apply their harsh version of Islam.
"It is dangerous to negotiate with these people (Taliban). The lesson from Swat is indeed that you simply cannot and must not negotiate with these people," one Western ambassador in Islamabad told CBS News on condition of anonymity.
Swat has changed from being a destination for honeymooners and couples looking for a romantic break into a valley now dominated by hardliners, including many who fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The Pakistani government's critics say that unless it learns a lesson from the current situation in Swat, Pakistan will remain at risk to an advance of Taliban justice.