Samiya Mumtaz, Sarmad, Erfan Khoosat’s haunting readings of letters of death row inmates leave Islamabad audience in tears

Samiya Mumtaz, Sarmad, Erfan Khoosat’s haunting readings of letters of death row inmates leave Islamabad audience in tears

Limbo was held at the Pakistan National Council of Arts on Oct 10 to mark the Day Against Death Penalty.
11 Oct, 2022

What could be worse than being told that you are going to die? How can killing common prisoners end terrorism?

The haunting questions and testimonies at the centre of Limbo — A Dramatic Reading Of Letters of Prisoners on Death Row asked by an evocative Erfan Khoosat created many unforgettable moments during the performance held at Islamabad’s Pakistan National Council of Arts on Monday night to mark the Day Against Death Penalty.

The performance was organised by Justice Project Pakistan, a legal action non-government organisation that represents the most vulnerable prisoners in Pakistan facing harsh punishments, along with Olomopolo Media. The ticket cost Rs1,500.

Erfan, along with his son Sarmad Khoosat, the actor and director, and Samiya Mumtaz, from the famed Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan, donned orange jumpsuits for a night and read out letters penned by death row inmates in Pakistan, sharing glimpses of their life in prison, forced confessions, their family life (or lack thereof), and their personal existential thoughts, interspersed with regulations from the Pakistan Prisons Rules, which Mumtaz read in a stern manner.

Sarmad also read passages from George Orwell’s 1931 essay A Hanging. The three sat on a dimly lit stage in three identical cubicles comprising a black bench and a hanging lamp which lit up as the spotlight kept oscillating between them.

Letters detailing the lives of three condemned prisoners — Aftab, Murad ur Rehman and Dr Ali — were shared with the almost full house at the 400-seat PNCA auditorium. The bulk of the Urdu letter reading fell on the trusted shoulders of Erfan, whose earnest reading brought tears to the eyes of people in the audience. The performance humanised the emotions, fears, and feelings of death row inmates, with many people deeply impacted by the life of Dr Ali, who, during his time in the prison, impacted many young minds and encouraged them to complete their education. Despite repeated requests by his peers, his appeal against the death penalty was rejected and he was executed in 2015.

The conceptualisation by Kanwal Khoosat along with Talha Mufti’s direction succeeded in highlighting the inhumane struggles faced by condemned prisoners and their families and it ended with a standing ovation. From telling parents to bring a charpoy to collect the body after execution, to rules which state that the executioner will be paid Rs10 per execution, the performance encompassed the different facets of the lives of death row inmates. It lasted a little over 40 minutes and proved to be gripping, chilling, and intense, and it made the slight technical issue with the video subtitles forgivable.

Thirty-four months have passed since the last execution in Pakistan, shared Thomas Seiler, Charge d’ Affaires, Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Pakistan, while taking the stage before the performance. He said the practice is “cruel and inhuman” and hoped that the trend continues to decline in Pakistan.

Sarah Belal, the executive director of Justice Project Pakistan, said the purpose of the performance was to allow people to think critically about the death penalty. “Have we even heard the voices of the condemned?” These are the real stories of real people.

Contrasting with the bleakness of the auditorium, the bright lobby of the arts council was brimming with chatter as people started gathering for the performance. Many people participated in an interactive session, ‘This Is (Not) A Game,’ in which tabs were set up for them to play the role of a woman navigating Pakistan’s justice system after her husband is arrested. The game is available here.


Art Oct 11, 2022 11:01am
A country like Pakistan can’t feed criminals, death penalty saves money for poor country with criminal leaders!
Tahir Raouf Oct 11, 2022 11:10am
Also read letters from victims side. Better stop this drama and work for society with no crime
Ahmed Oct 11, 2022 11:57am
Can we please have a session on how the victims suffered and how their loved ones lives will be incomplete. These showbiz people should know their place and stop talking about anything related to real life.
Khurram Oct 11, 2022 12:22pm
What abt hanging of Mumtaz Qadri? Did that NGO done something in his favour b4 his execution?
Abida Oct 11, 2022 12:45pm
The West wants Muslim countries to stop death penalty on the basis of humanity. I want to tell them that only Islam has the laws to save humanity. These actors participate in their efforts just for the sake of money . Although I strongly believe that nobody should be punished without proper evidence but this the thing which humans have to do and if they can't make sure justice , it doesn't make them eligible to mock islamic rules
NYS Oct 11, 2022 12:49pm
Why did they held that kind of event Captivation >Resuraction Read that worth " Seven stages of Life by Shakespeare"
NoVoice Oct 11, 2022 12:57pm
Confusion at peak. It is the weak and selective system of justice that has led to epidemic of repeat offenders in the wealth western countries. We do not need their failed experiments in morality. But what we do need is to get rid of this law that allows rich to buy off the relatives of the person they murder.
MA Oct 11, 2022 02:15pm
How about the criminals killing the only bread winner in the family , have you read letters from those victims?
Helping hands Oct 11, 2022 02:37pm
It would've been nicer to see victims reading out these letters and their responses/reactions to them.
nk Oct 11, 2022 07:26pm
Death punishment is the command of our creator and to keep the world safe from murderous criminals we have to keep death punishment alive.
nk Oct 11, 2022 07:28pm
Drama actors and directors making live drama.
Sabah Oct 11, 2022 07:38pm
The issues is not as simplistic as people in comments perceive it to be. Yes, our religion provides for death penalty but there is a system and a society that is the foundation for it. Where the judiciary is routinely corrupt, police tamper with evidence and we live in a cruel, unfair society where abuse of authority and privilege is acceptable, every case needs to be thoroughly reviewed. Murderers walk scot free or take the islamic blood money route while innocent people are convicted.
Tm Oct 11, 2022 08:08pm
Ask the victim relatives, what they lost because of these criminals. I suggest hang the killer ,the rapist especially of kids publically. I think the actors didn't lost anyone in the hands of these criminals. Humble request to showbiz people kindly visit those homes who lost their kids in early age or visit those women who lost their honour don't know why.
M. Saeed Oct 11, 2022 10:38pm
Only humans can have such feelings after the fact. But, who would care about horrible animals who kill humans just for pleasure, ignoring their religious warning that, such killers are the killers of whole humanity?
Hayat Oct 12, 2022 12:43am
These people following the imperial superiority doesn't know the context of death penalties. These are the ones who will applaud watching "Money Heist", without thinking how they are sympathizing criminals and portraying the state as a criminal.