Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The young lovers didn't stand a chance.
In a desolate field on the edge of their village in northern Afghanistan, hundreds of men, stones in hand, closed in to carry out the mullah's death sentence, handed down after the pair eloped against the wishes of their families.
"It was an act of great cruelty," said Mutasem Khan, an uncle of Abdul Qayuum, the 28-year-old man who was stoned to death this month in Kunduz province along with the village woman he had wooed, identified only as 19-year-old Siddiqa.
The couple's gruesome deaths came just one week after another public execution, also in a remote northern village. There, a widow in her 40s was flogged and then shot for conceiving a child out of wedlock with a man she intended to marry, according to accounts by villagers and local officials.
Human rights groups, which verified the killings, say such draconian punishments are becoming more commonplace as conservative religious and tribal leaders become emboldened by the Taliban's growing influence and by the weakening grip of the central government.
But the reemergence of the rough justice that was a hallmark of the Taliban's five-year rule could also signal a split within the movement's ranks.
Even as hard-line village mullahs loosely aligned with the Taliban seek a return to the harshest forms of physical punishment permitted under Sharia, or Islamic law, the Taliban leadership has been trying to rally public support by painting itself as a defender of civilian lives.
In a highly unusual move, the Taliban this month even offered to create and participate in a joint commission with the Western military, the United Nations and the Afghan government to investigate the deaths and injuries of noncombatants. That offer came soon after the insurgents issued a "code of conduct" that discouraged the killings of civilians.
Which camp proves to have more influence could be a decisive factor in whether "reconciliation" can move ahead. Many Afghans now view some form of political settlement with the Taliban leadership as the likeliest outcome of the nearly 9-year-old conflict.
For countries contributing troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, such a settlement could set the stage for an exit from what has become an increasingly unpopular war. But the West says, echoed by the government of President Hamid Karzai, that negotiations can take place only with insurgents who promise to renounce violence and respect Afghanistan's Constitution and legal system, which call at least in theory for due process under the law.
At the village level, however, matters of crime and punishment almost always encompass family honor and deeply held tribal traditions.
Summary justice, governing everything from land disputes to adultery, was a feature of daily life long before the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s and will probably remain part of the landscape regardless of how long the Western military presence lasts.
Even religious leaders who do not consider themselves affiliated with the Taliban often call for a more traditional Islamic system of justice, often with the tacit support of elected officials.
A gathering of senior religious scholars, the Ulema Council, this month called for wider use of Sharia-style penalties for transgressions such as theft and adultery.
In cases of impromptu capital punishment, such as the stonings in Kunduz, those carrying out the violence are almost never tracked down or prosecuted, even if their identities are widely known.
The stonings, together with the execution of the widow in Badghis province, drew condemnation from rights groups as well as the Afghan government.
Karzai called the stonings "unforgivable." The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission termed the killings a "brutal and inhuman loss of life" and decried the lack of judicial process.
In many ways, however, the two cases pointed out the blurred line between the insurgency as an organized movement and the array of Taliban-inspired village clerics across the country who are not necessarily taking direct orders from the movement's central leadership.
The Taliban's reaction was oddly equivocal, especially in the case of the executed widow.
A statement issued by the movement's leadership two days after her killing denounced news stories about the incident as "propaganda" meant to defame the Taliban, while not actually denying that the execution had taken place.
It went on to a bizarrely meticulous discussion of what form of punishment would have been appropriate under Sharia, an almost Miss Manners-style discourse on the proper etiquette involved.
"Qisas is an Islamic term meaning retaliatory punishment of a murder.… The term does not refer to adultery," said the statement, which appeared on the Taliban website. "Let's say she was unmarried. According to Islamic law, she should have only been lashed 100 times, rather than lashed 200 times and shot with a gun."
Later, spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi disavowed any responsibility for the widow's execution.
"The Taliban had no hand in this," he said.
Another Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the stoning of the young couple had been justified because the pair had confessed to their illicit relationship. Villagers said that before they were stoned, the two declared their wish to marry.
To many in the village, any distinction between the Taliban movement and its sympathizers was an entirely academic one.
"The man who handed down this punishment was a Talib, because they are the ones in charge of this area," said Khan, the uncle of the executed man. "The Taliban are more powerful than the government."