A bus departs Lahore today. It carries 15 actors. For the next seven days, they will pretend to be prisoners as part of a campaign whimsically but aptly titled ‘Bus Kar Do.’ Frankly, after 477 bodies have hanged in less than three years, we should really know when to say when – when to say enough.
Long waiting times are characteristic of Pakistan’s criminal justice system. Waiting for things to move forward, waiting for verdicts, waiting for justice, which often isn’t, as promised, served. It is from this required patience that the play’s name is inspired – ‘Intezar.’ Whoever ends up on Pakistan’s death row might as well get comfortable. They could be there a while.
There is Aamir, a man who was paralysed as a direct result of jail negligence. There is Shagufta, a woman tortured into silence, and also Bilal – a prisoner who taught hundreds of his fellow inmates before being executed for an unintentional killing. We meet Awais, arrested as a 16-year-old and killed by the state and the media after a torture-induced confession. Mustafa, a prisoner repeatedly diagnosed as schizophrenic, is shunned by the courts who don’t think of the disease as a mental disorder.
Even if there is some degree of artistic licence at play here, none of these stories is fiction.
Their stories are powerful, and will be performed all the way from Sahiwal to Karachi, right in the streets. Their stories resonate, because they are real – based on true accounts of prisoners scattered all over the country’s prisons. But mostly, their stories terrify. They could happen to anyone, anywhere at any time.
But while the actors can switch off their personas as soon as the performance is done, their characters continue to live on. In crowded jail cells in Faisalabad, Vehari, Sahiwal, Lahore and Karachi.
The visual depiction of the very real consequences of our justice system is designed to confront the audience with what it really means to support the death penalty in Pakistan. And make no mistake, the death penalty in Pakistan has gone too far. We have hanged the mentally ill, and have brought many more to the brink of executions. We have hanged juvenile offenders, men who entered the jail as teenagers and left as old men in body bags. We have carried a man unable to stand on his own to the gallows, only to return him to a jail cell because there is no way to hang him without botching his execution.
October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty, is an annual accounting of the irreversible punishment. Activists around the world take stock of how many lives have been ended by the state and for what, and how we can continue the global trend towards abolition. Bus Kar Do seeks to remind us of where we stand in that momentum.
This year, the theme agreed upon is the deadly mix of poverty and justice. Pakistan understands this relationship well, particular those citizens with shallow pockets. While needy defendants are entitled to legal representation at the expense of the state, this does not necessarily mean that they are being adequately protected. There is little wonder why ‘justice’ in the form of executions only comes for those who don’t reside in the A-Class prison cells.
This is precisely why this bus is travelling across the country, with a theatrical manifestation of what’s at stake if meaningful criminal justice reforms do not take place.
The audience must not look away. The death penalty could very well never be their problem – until it is.
The writer works for Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm based in Lahore.