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‘You Can Stop This At Any Time’ — a harrowing experience at the 10th Karachi Literature Festival

The art installation showed the final moments of Aftab Bahadur who was wrongfully hanged to death

SAMAA | - Posted: Mar 4, 2019 | Last Updated: 2 years ago
Posted: Mar 4, 2019 | Last Updated: 2 years ago

Aftab Bahadur was hanged to death in Lahore at 4:30am on Wednesday, June 10, 2015, despite evidence proving that he was innocent. He was sentenced to death when he was a child – in violation of both international and Pakistani law.

Aftab was just 15 when he was sentenced to death. He was convicted of murder based on evidence extracted by torture – the two eyewitnesses both recanted their statements against him, explaining that they had been given under duress.

According to the doctor who examined Bahadur, he was subjected to torture with a sharp-edged instrument for 24 to 38 hours before he made his 'confession'.

Bahadur was hanged from his hands when he was being tortured due to which his shoulders were disjointed. The police also made him leave his fingerprints on a cupboard with grease at the scene of the crime. He spent his whole life in jail even though he was innocent.

Related: Airspace closure spells disaster for the 10th Karachi Literature Festival

This harrowing story echoed in a small yellow box, a room barely big enough to fit two people, at the Karachi Literature Festival. The yellow exterior of the 8x8 foot box was jarring when contrasted with the dark interior that brought people face to face with the human cost of the death penalty.

Inside the box was an art installation called “You Can Stop This At Any Time”. It brought participants face to face with a death row prisoner while the disturbing details of his story were narrated in the background. In between the two was a red button that the participant could press at any point during the performance which indicated their desire to stop the injustice. Each performance lasted for three minutes.

Produced by the Justice Project Pakistan and Highlight Arts, the piece was installed at the 10th Karachi Literature Festival that took place at Beach Luxury Hotel from March 1 to 3. The installation was designed by Asma Zia of Cocoon Arts and Entertainment. The audio track was composed by Afzal Saahir and Muhammad Usman.

The project was based on the true story of a victim of the death penalty, Aftab Bahadur, and the performance isolates the participants from their preconceived notions about crime and punishment. By humanising death row prisoners, the performance aimed to give people an opportunity to choose between the moral choice of stopping a wrongful execution or letting it happen.

Related: Sarmad Khoosat to spend 24 hours portraying a death row prisoner’s final moments

“The need for criminal justice reforms is dire in Pakistan. People tend to look the other way because topics like torture and the death penalty make them uncomfortable. The art piece is aimed at putting people face to face with the harsh realities of our system,” said JPP's spokesperson Muhammad Shoaib.

“The main idea behind this installation is an attempt to raise awareness and challenge the general public’s indifference towards a sensitive topic,” said the man behind the concept of the art piece Ryan Van Winkle.

Last year, the JPP presented No Time To Sleep, a 24-hour live stream charting the final hours of a death row prisoner’s life in prison leading up to his execution. It received critical acclaim both domestically and internationally with 1.4 million views, 6,000 tweets and a hashtag that trended on Twitter for several hours throughout the performance.

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