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Untold stories from prison

Updated October 12, 2017

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KARACHI: World Day Against the Death Penalty on Tuesday was observed at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture with the performance of Intezar, an open-air interactive play organised by Justice Project Pakistan, Azad Theatre and Highlight Arts. The performance follows after a week-long campaign titled ‘Bus Kar Do’, which saw activists travelling by bus to spread awareness about the issue all the way from Lahore to Karachi.

The collective stories of several individuals that started from jail and ended at the gallows and the people associated with them in one way or the other raises several questions. There was the poor mother who arrived from afar to collect her son’s remains after his hanging; there is also the older brother who was there from Azad Kashmir for the same purpose, waiting for his brother to be hanged, younger by 10 years, but who now looked 10 years older. And inside the prison there were many other inmates on death row whose stories need to be told.

No matter if they are guilty or innocent, it’s the system that has landed them there and exposed them to all kinds of injustices such as police brutality and such torture during investigation that it made Shagufta, a sane girl, lose her mental balance. Sixteen-year-old Owais accused of kidnapping and murder admits to the crime and also that he is not a minor but 23 years old, but only after being subjected to extreme torture by the police.

An artist, sketching and painting away to while away his time as his family runs from pillar to post to find him justice by hiring bigger lawyers and appealing to higher courts; a professor who takes it upon himself to make others around him literate enough to not sign anything that may go against them legally; these are just some of the stories portrayed.

One by one, they all receive their death warrants. Some get stay orders, some succumb to their fate as the others tell them not to worry as they too will follow them soon to the gallows. Meanwhile, the lawyers do what they do.

Among them are also the passionate ones who manage to save lives, like the life of the invalid inmate who could not even walk himself to the gallows and was saved on that technicality after which it was realised that he may also be innocent of the crime he is said to have committed.

The executioner, too, doesn’t know how to live with himself. There is one who has hanged 300 people and received Rs300 bonus for each along with his regular salary. But he can’t sleep at night as he has nightmares in which the spirits of the executed prisoners keep dragging him to the gallows.

All the characters in the play are based on real people. The stories are all real; we have heard them and read about them in the newspapers, only the names have been changed. That’s why this is so serious. Because it is really happening.

The ‘Bus Kar Do’ campaign saw a troupe of actors reach the heart of communities as they staged Intezar. According to the organisers, in Sahiwal, communities that had gathered shared their own stories of family members being trapped in jails all over the country. In Multan many voiced their outrage that innocent people remain in danger of being executed. In Sukkur, the local union council leader explicitly announced to the crowd that they had not forgotten the hanging of Bhutto and that the government remains aware that the system is unjust against the impoverished. In Hyderabad, Intezar was staged in front of the press club, right in the middle of the street.

In order to measure the impact of the above performances, the organisers also asked members of their audiences to write postcards to President Mamnoon Hussain, asking for clemency for death row inmates that do not deserve to be executed.

Head of communications at Justice Project Pakistan, Rimmel Mohydin said that ‘Bus Kar Do’ has literally brought untold stories from prisons across Pakistan to the streets, and with it nuance and empathy for some of our most demonised citizens. “With acts as simple as writing a postcard or taking a selfie, people are joining our call to bring back the moratorium,” she said.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2017