KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- When the Taliban religious movement decided to stone to death a couple caught in adultery, it chose a blazing afternoon in late August.
The suffocating desert heat had pushed temperatures past 100 degrees, but those who were there remember how the townspeople came by the thousands to witness a spectacle not seen in Kandahar for decades.
Long before the condemned couple arrived on the flatbed of a truck, their hands and feet tightly bound, every vantage point around the forecourt of Id Gah Mosque was taken. Still, according to the Muslim traditions of Afghanistan, space was made so that relatives of the condemned pair, including small children, could have a clear view of the type of justice preferred by the Taliban, which now controls three-quarters of the country.
The condemned woman, Nurbibi, 40, was lowered into a pit dug into the earth beside the wall until only her chest and head were above ground. Witnesses said she was dressed in a sky-blue burqa, the head-to-toe shroud with a slit for the eyes that the Taliban require all women to wear when they are outside their homes.
Nurbibi's stepson and lover, Turyalai, 38, was taken to a spot about 20 paces away, blindfolded and turned to face the Muslim cleric who was their judge.
Those close enough to have heard said the cleric spoke briefly about the provisions for stoning adulterers in the Sharia, the ancient Muslim legal code imposed by the Taliban since they began their rise to power in Kandahar two years ago.
Then, those witnesses said, the judge, following tradition, stooped to pick up the first stone from one of two piles that had been prepared, one for each of the condemned pair.
The first stone, the witnesses said, was thrown at Nurbibi. Quickly, Taliban fighters who had been summoned for the occasion stepped forward and launched a cascade of stones, each big enough to fill the palms of their hands. A man who stepped forward from the crowd to join in the stoning, Rahmatullah, 25, said neither Nurbibi nor Turyalai had cried out.
Turyalai, he said, appeared to be dead after about 10 minutes, but the killing of Nurbibi took longer, past the point where one of her sons, stepping forward to check, turned to the judge to say his mother was still alive.
"The son was crying," Rahmatullah said. "I could see it."
At that point, several witnesses said, one of the Taliban fighters picked up a large rock, advanced toward Nurbibi and dropped it on her head, finishing her off.
Among the score of people who gathered before the mosque to offer their recollections of the stoning, none expressed dismay. To the contrary, all -- men and boys, since women in Kandahar are forbidden by Taliban rules to linger in public places or to speak to strangers -- spoke with enthusiasm of the killings.
"It was a good thing, the only way to end this kind of sinning," said Mohammed Younus, 60, a teacher.
Mohammed Karim, a 24-year-old Taliban fighter, picked up several stones and threw them in an impromptu re-enactment of the executions. "No, I didn't feel sorry for them at all," he said. "I was just happy to see Sharia being implemented."
Court-ordered executions of adulterers by stoning have been reported occasionally in revolutionary Iran, but since World War II this punishment has not been imposed in Afghanistan -- until the Taliban took power in Kandahar.
The Muslim mullah who led the investigation that resulted in the stoning of Nurbibi and Turyalai, Mohammed Wali, says the incident was at least the third stoning for adultery in the Kandahar region since the Taliban took power. Several others have been reported in other areas under Taliban control.
Wali heads the Taliban's religious police, the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prohibition of Vice. Encountered by chance in the courtyard of a Taliban office building in Kandahar, where he was relaxing with some of his investigators in the shade of a mulberry tree, Wali, 35, said the stonings of Nurbibi and Turyalai had given him great satisfaction.
"When I see this kind of thing, I am very happy, because it means that the rule of Islam is being implemented," he said.
The Taliban take care to see that foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are kept away from stonings and amputations, which Taliban leaders like Wali describe as religious occasions not to be witnessed by nonbelievers. But the executions of Nurbibi and Turyalai were openly discussed with foreigners outside the mosque and in the Id Gah Bazaar, just down the road, where Turyalai had been a motorcycle salesman.
But a first attempt by Western reporters to talk to the family of the victims was angrily aborted by the Taliban. Making their way to the Naido district of the city, an area where thousands live among rubble left when Soviet aircraft carpet-bombed the southern districts of Kandahar in 1986, the reporters found a small boy who led them up an alleyway to a heavy wooden door in a 10-foot-high mud wall.
Moments later, an elderly woman, Sidiqa, who was Turyalai's aunt, appeared at the door and, with neighbors, began to relate the story of the stoning.
But two young Taliban fighters who had been posted to keep watch on the district, one armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, quickly arrived, ordering the foreigners to leave. When they delayed, one of the fighters turned to the gathering crowd. "Pick up stones," he said.
The visitors retreated, followed by angry youths throwing stones and rotting corncobs. But at dawn the next day, a second visit to the family went unnoticed by the Taliban. Family members and neighbors appeared eager to tell their story, gathering around to speak of Nurbibi and Turyalai and how their relationship led to death.
By the family's accounts, the events that led to the stoning began 13 years ago, when Turyalai's father died of a stomach ailment. Nurbibi, the father's second wife, was more than 20 years younger than her husband, and was left with two young sons. She remained in her husband's home, along with Turyalai, who was the son of her husband by his first wife.
Under Muslim tradition, any intimate relationship between Nurbibi and her stepson was forbidden, and in any event, Turyalai was married and had a growing family of his own.
Nazaneen, Turyalai's wife, who spoke from inside the family home through a half-opened door, said she had long known of the close relationship between her husband and Nurbibi but had not been concerned about it until recently.
"I knew that they were intimate with each other, but I felt it was the relationship of a mother and a son," she said. "But then I became suspicious of them, and finally my suspicions were confirmed."
"Of course," she added, "I know that Turyalai was not in love with her, but some evil force must have drawn them together."
Some neighbors hinted that the tipoff to the Taliban came from Nazaneen. But a man who said he was a cousin of Turyalai said the Taliban had been alerted by Nurbibi's two teen-age sons, Habibullah and Asmatullah, who were angered by their mother's infidelity.
"They went to the Taliban and told them that their mother was having a sexual relationship with her stepson," the man said.
A few nights later, several family members said, a group of men from the Taliban's religious police hid themselves on the roof of an adjoining house. In summer, many Afghans relax and sleep at night on the flat roofs of their homes, and Nurbibi and Turyalai were together on the roof when the Taliban sprang from their hiding place.
"They caught them red-handed," one man said. "There wasn't any doubt about it."
Under the Sharia, conviction for adultery requires four witnesses; in this case they were the men from the Taliban. Family members say the couple were imprisoned immediately and held for a month before the Thursday in August when they were taken out and stoned. Between them, Nurbibi and Turyalai left 10 children, and all eight of Turyalai's were under the age of 13.
The oldest of his children, Gulalai, 12, stood listening to accounts of the stoning with her youngest brother, Nadirjan, 3 months, swaddled in her arms, then burst out with her own account.
"I saw it," she said. "I was on a truck and I saw it." Then she turned, tears in her eyes, and fled into the house.