Prisoners on death row are largely abstractions, not people.

For those who oppose capital punishment, they symbolise the ultimate abuse of state power and for those who support it, their execution represents the triumph of justice.

Underlying both positions are debates about guilt and innocence, theories of punishment, conviction rates and statistics and flawed legal systems. These conversations, while important, overlook something that requires a different vocabulary – the felt experiences of those on death row and those who play a part in bringing about their deaths.

No Time To Sleep, a project by Lahore’s Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), shines a light on these overlooked experiences. The project records the final days of Prisoner Z, loosely based on JPP’s first client, Zulfiqar Ali Khan who was killed in 2015.

Prisoner Z's meal of tea and biscuits — Photo: JPP
Prisoner Z's meal of tea and biscuits — Photo: JPP

The project includes daily updates on the frantic legal processes Prisoner Z’s team engages in to stay his execution, snippets of real applications and urgent appeals, and short video clips of people whose lives are impacted by the death penalty including an executioner and the family members of victims.

The project culminates in a performance by Sarmad Khoosat as Prisoner Z in his jail cell during the final 24 hours of his life. All 24 hours are live-streamed without interruption and during this time, the audience experiences Prisoner Z’s confinement and shifting mental state with claustrophobic clarity.

Prisoner Z paces his cell. He exercises and stretches. He plays idly with the dirt on the ground. He prays and reads the Quran. He sleeps. His orange shalwar kameez gets rumpled and dusty as afternoon fades to evening. He talks to the guards about inconsequential things. Some of them are genuinely kind. He washes his hands with the slow deliberateness of someone who has absolutely nowhere to be and all the time in the world. These moments, banal in any other context, are horrifying precisely because the viewer must engage with the incomprehensibility of how one passes time until the state-appointed hour of one’s death.

Prisoner Z’s mostly solitary vigil is interspersed with small, sharp moments that reveal the absurdity of the state’s attempts to methodise and regulate the act of taking a life. Every two hours, for instance, a prison medical officer comes to monitor Prisoner Z’s blood pressure to ensure that he is healthy enough to be executed. The officer urges him to drink water, prompting us to question why exactly a prisoner needs to be well hydrated before we kill him.

In addition to the obvious trauma of Prisoner Z’s family who visits him for the last time some hours before his execution, No Time to Sleep also confronts the fact that the capital punishment leaves an indelible mark on a constellation of strangers who play their pre-determined parts in bringing a man to his death.

Prisoner Z's guards, Abubakar and Sarfraz — Photo: JPP
Prisoner Z's guards, Abubakar and Sarfraz — Photo: JPP

We must ask ourselves: what does it do to a person’s soul to participate in this process?

What is it like to be the judge who puts aside the real possibility of human error when s/he determines guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and sentences a man to death?

Or the prison guard who watches light and shadow shift all day in the condemned man’s jail cell before he is lead to the gallows?

Or the medical officer who listens to his pulse every two hours, closer than anyone else to the physical fact of his being alive?

What about the prison guards whose arms are sore the next day from the strain of dragging the condemned to the site of his imminent death while he screams and cries?

Or the superintendent who waves a sad little red flag that usurps God’s job – determining the exact moment soul takes leave of body?

And finally, the executioner, whose hands have the muscle memory of how to loop a rope into a noose and whose eyes hold pictures of nameless men’s bodies twitching and jerking until life finally cedes?

No Time To Sleep is not about guilt or innocence or flawed legal processes. It’s about a greater truth: The death penalty doesn’t result in a neat excision of a tumour that leaves the rest of the body politic intact, unhurt. This is the fiction the state perpetuates to distract us from truly scrutinizing the absurd and inhumane practice of killing people in the name of our safety and security. Responsible citizens must broaden the current conversation about the death penalty and No Time To Sleep is the first critical step in this direction.

The author, Jawziya F. Zaman, is a lawyer based in Karachi.


Read more about No Time To Sleep here.

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