By Kamran Haider
ISLAMABAD, April 3 (Reuters) - Video footage has emerged in Pakistan of Taliban militants beating in public a teenaged girl accused of having an affair, a stark illustration of the spread of hardline Islamist influence.
The 17-year-old girl was beaten in the Swat Valley, some 140 km (90 miles) northwest of Islamabad, about two weeks ago, a human rights worker said.
The government virtually ceded control of the one-time tourist valley to militants in February under a deal to end fighting there.
Grainy footage apparently shot with a mobile phone camera shows militants making the burqa-clad girl lie on the ground on her stomach.
One man holds her feet and another her head while a third man with a black beard and turban flogs her with a leather strap. Men can be seen looking on.
"For God’s sake, stop it ... hang on, hang on," the girl cries as the man beats her across the buttocks.
The provincial government agreed in February to let Islamists impose sharia law in Swat in exchange for peace.
Critics said appeasement would only embolden the militants who aim to take over other areas. Pakistan’s Western allies fear pacts create safe havens for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
Most of Pakistan’s 160 million people are conservative but moderate Muslims and many of them are dismayed by the seemingly relentless spread of the hardliners.
"NO EVIDENCE, NO WITNESS"
Taliban commander Navid Khan confirmed the incident happened. A spokesman for the valley’s main cleric, allied with the Taliban, said the beating was against sharia law.
Swat was one of Pakistan’s main tourist destinations with mountain hikes, Buddhist ruins and skiing in the winter until a couple of years ago when militants infiltrated from enclaves on the Afghan border to support a radical cleric.
Militants attacked security forces and assassinated numerous opponents while banning girls from classes and destroying more than 200 schools.
The military mounted offensives to push the militants out of the valley but they just slipped back when fighting eased.
Human rights activist Samar Minallah said the girl was from a poor family and was flogged after a neighbour told the Taliban she had had an affair.
"They did this brutality just on suspicion. There was no trial. No evidence, no witness was produced," she said.
A militant commander off-camera can be heard giving orders as the girl squirms and whimpers under the blows: "Hold her feet tightly, hold her hands tightly."
Minallah said the militants had issued two minutes of footage of the beating and it was being sold in markets.
"It was distributed deliberately by the militants to harass residents and make the point that they can keep on doing what they like," Minallah said.
Residents condemned the beating.
"It’s inhuman. If that’s their Islam, sorry to say but I don’t want it," said shopkeeper Abdul Kabir.
Mechanic Nasir Khan said the authorities should do something: "Why aren’t they taking action against those who did it? It’s criminal silence."
The leader of Pakistan’s main Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, played down the incident.
"It’s a small thing. We should talk about drone attacks, not minor things," said Munawar Hassan, referring to attacks on suspected militants by pilotless U.S. aircraft that have angered many Pakistanis. (For additional stories regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan click on [nSP437509] (Additional reporting Junaid Khan in Mingora; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton)