Khartoum, Sudan -- A YouTube video of Sudanese police officers laughing as they publicly flogged a pleading, fleeing woman has sparked outrage, prompting dozens of demonstrators to protest Tuesday outside the Justice Ministry in downtown Khartoum, authorities said.
The demonstrators belonged to the Women Initiative Against Violence, and 52 of them -- 46 women and six men -- were arrested for unlawful assembly, the Khartoum State Police Force said in a statement.
All 52 persons were released under bail, police said.
The two-minute video has caused an uproar in Sudan, and columnists in pro-government newspapers have called for an immediate investigation. Much criticism focuses on how the flogging was carried out.
The footage shows an unidentified woman in a head scarf and black abaya, or Islamic robe, and she's ordered in Arabic to sit down in a parking lot and take her punishment so that the officers "can go home."
The flogging is initially to her back, in keeping with the Sharia code, or Islamic law, governing flogging, but when she turns to ask for mercy, the whipping continues to the front part of her body, including her face, hands and legs.
A shocked passerby can be heard exclaiming, "There is no authority but God's" after witnessing the woman's punishment. One of the officers responds: "This is a fundamental principle. Let him whip her."
At another point, an officer laughs when he realizes he is being filmed and asks the person behind the camera to film spectators whom he says are laughing with him. That officer then joins the flogging, and the woman is whipped by the two male officers.
Sudan's deputy police chief, Adel Al-Agib, initially attempted to downplay the incident and told the government's official news agency that the video was circulated to "damage the image of the country."
In a recent meeting organized by the Sudanese Journalism and Publications Council, Al-Agib said the video was recorded in July 2009, but was recently released "to coincide with International Human Rights Day in order to bring on more international pressure on the country," he said.
On late Sunday, Sudan's Judiciary Authority, which oversees the legal system, announced it had launched an inquiry to see if the punishment had been administered improperly. The authority said nothing about the punishment itself.
The judiciary authority said it would investigate the manner in which the "execution of a punishment went against legally established guidelines according to criminal publications."
"The investigation was started immediately after the images of the young woman, being punished under Articles 154 and 155 of the 1991 Sudanese penal code, appeared on the internet," the judiciary said in the statement.
Article 154 deals with the "practice of prostitution," and Article 155 deals with the "management of a place of prostitution."
Details of the woman's purported offenses have not been released by authorities.
Local news accounts have reported that the flogging took place in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city across the river, at the Kajabab Police Station, which is in a poor neighborhood notorious for brothels and the illegal sale of the local moonshine "aragi."
Flogging is common in northern Sudan, where Islamic law is often enforced arbitrarily under the Public Order Act. Police and "public order units" have powers to enforce what is inappropriate dress or behavior. Local human rights organizations have long accused police of abusing their authority to mistreat women.
Last year, Lubna Hussein, a former journalist turned United Nations employee, was arrested with a dozen other women for wearing trousers.
Lubna was found guilty but was fined rather than whipped. Her case garnered international attention.
The Public Order Act also applies to men. Last week a Khartoum court convicted seven men of indecency after they wore make-up while appearing at the "Sudanese Next Top Model fashion show." The men were fined 200 Sudanese pounds, or $60, each.