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Pakistan's Swat Peace Deal Shaky Following Cleric Protest, Beating Video


The main brokers of the controversial peace deal in Pakistan's Swat valley say they are leaving the region in protest because the federal government has still not signed the agreement. Provincial officials insist the deal is still intact.

The provincial government in Pakistan's northwest signed the peace agreement with hard-line cleric Sufi Mohammad in February, ending major fighting in the region between the army and Taliban militants. In exchange for peace, provincial officials agreed to implement Islamic law in the Malakand district through government-sanctioned Islamic courts.

Since then, Sufi Mohammad and his supporters have remained in Swat to oversee the implementation of the court system. But Ameer Izzat, Sufi Mohammad's spokesman, announced Thursday that the group is leaving the valley in protest.

He says we have decided to leave this area, because despite promises, the government is not taking practical steps to implement the peace deal. He says the federal government is responsible for whatever consequences occur.

Critics say the agreement implicitly sanctions the Taliban's takeover of a region some 100 kilometers from Islamabad, further undermining government authority. And although provincial government officials have insisted the deal would not lead to a further expansion of Taliban power, this week militants in Swat attacked the neighboring district Buner, killing at least five people.

The leader of a lashkar or tribal militia in Buner tells VOA that they are now trying to negotiate with the militants to keep them out of their district.

He says people worry that if the Taliban come into the district, it could lead to more intense fighting with the army.

Swat's peace deal was aimed at breaking a violent stalemate between the army and the militants in the scenic valley. During months of fighting, scores of civilians have been killed in the crossfire.

Pakistani scholars say peace deal will further harm country's legal system

While the cease-fire has largely held, the peace agreement has lost support in Islamabad. Newspaper editorials, legal scholars and human rights activists have urged President Asif Zardari not to sign it, arguing it would significantly harm Pakistan's already embattled legal system and further erode government authority in the region.

During the past week criticism of the situation has intensified following the broadcast of a video appearing to show Taliban fighters in Swat publicly beating a young woman.

The grainy video broadcast widely on Pakistani television networks shows three men pinning a burqa-clad woman face-down on the ground. In front of a crowd of male onlookers, a fourth man beats her more than 30 times with a heavy strap as she cries out in pain.

The exact circumstances, location and date of the video remain in dispute. But human rights activists say the victim is a 17-year-old girl who was punished for refusing to marry a Swat Taliban commander. Much of the public outcry has focused on the girl shown being punished in public, instead of inside her home.

Swat Taliban leaders say video is fake

When the video surfaced last week, Swat Taliban leader Muslim Khan at first took responsibility in an interview with VOA.

He says there is no other authority in this area to execute punishments, so without doubt these were Taliban. He says this was filmed during a war-time situation and it was necessary to punish her publicly.

The next day Muslim Khan recanted, joining other militant spokesmen and sympathetic political parties in denouncing the video as a fake. They claim it is a ploy by human rights activists to discredit the Taliban and undermine the Islamic courts.

Even provincial government officials involved with the Swat peace deal have been critical of the video and its possible impact on the treaty.

Human rights activists say far worse abuses have occurred in Swat during the past year, but those weren't captured on video and broadcast across the country, vividly bringing the situation into people's homes.

"There is a campaign of disinformation that this is probably an exaggeration by those who are Western-minded, by those who are liberal," said lawyer Asma Jahangir, one of Pakistan's leading human rights activists and a long time legal advocate for battered women. "But actually seeing it for yourself - followed by admissions by the Taliban leader and spokesman himself - really did shake our people. And I think there is always an incident which really brings people back from a stupor and this is one of them."

Head of the Peshawar Bar Association says situation remains dire

Earlier this week Pakistan's newly returned Supreme Court Chief Justice took up the issue, sharply criticizing officials for not investigating the beating video more thoroughly. Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry demanded federal officials provide clarity on the situation in Swat. Outside the court, the head of the Peshawar Bar Association, Abdul Latif Afridi, told reporters the situation remains dire.

He says this issue is not about one girl or one person's rights - it is about the lack of government authority and security for residents. He says after the army was unable to establish peace in Swat, people are worried if anything will be able to.


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