Wednesday, 28 Oct 2020

Indians try to save a Kerala nurse on death row in war-torn Yemen

BANGALORE – Indian expatriates from 50 countries are grappling with the complications of trying to save a Kerala nurse on death row in Yemen in the middle of a war that has killed tens of thousands. 

Ms Nimisha Priya, 31, was sentenced to death on Aug 18 for murdering a Yemeni national who had claimed to be her husband. 

Kerala-born expatriates from 50 countries have formed a group called Save Nimisha International Action Council to bring her home alive. They are arranging “blood money” which, under Islamic law, is financial compensation paid to the victim’s family to prevent a person’s execution. 

Mr Babu John, a Bangalore-based businessman who lived in Yemen for 17 years, said: “We are informed by Yemeni sources that we need raise around US$70,000 (S$96,500) to offer to the victim’s family including the expenses. We are not focused on proving her innocence. Our main agenda is to rescue Nimisha from execution.” 

It will not be easy. 

Ms Nimisha, who was a nurse in Al-suwaidi in south-central Yemen since 2012, saw her world crumble in 2015 when war broke out between Houthi rebels in the north of the country and the elected government. 

Her husband Tomy Thomas, an unskilled Indian labourer, had gone back to their hometown in the southern state of Kerala with their daughter in late 2014. 

“We had visited Kerala to raise funds for a clinic we hoped to start together in Yemen,” said Mr Thomas, who now runs an autorickshaw in Thodupuzha.

“Nimisha went back on 9 Feb 2015 but in a month, all flights were cancelled due to the war. I couldn’t go back.” 

Ms Nimisha, who speaks Arabic, valiantly set the clinic up on her own in Yemen, with a former employer as the local partner. 

But Mr Thomas says Mr Talal Abdo Mahdi, another Yemeni acquaintance who was earlier supposed to be a business partner, soon began to forcibly take money from the clinic. 

When the nurse filed a police complaint, Mr Mahdi allegedly harassed her. 

“In 2016, when I would call up Nimisha, Talal (Mahdi) would answer the phone. When I once spoke briefly to my wife, she told me he was hitting her in front of the clinic staff and taking money by telling everyone they were married,” said Mr Thomas. 

In 2017, he caught a news item reporting that Ms Nimisha had killed “her Yemeni husband” by sedating him and “chopping his body into pieces”. 

After a period of hiding, she was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to death in 2020 after confessing to the murder. A Yemini nurse convicted for being an accomplice was sentenced to life imprisonment. 

The trial took place during bombings by Saudi Arabia, unstable political rule and a famine, all of which have killed about 233,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

“Nimisha fought her case all alone for three years, trapped in Yemen during the war, with little legal aid, no money, no family or community, and minimal Indian embassy support,” said Mr Jayachandran K, an electricity sector consultant in London. 

The expats have been unable to speak directly to the jailed Ms Nimisha, or gather all details about the crime and trial. They know she was arrested in Ma’rib, where the government is in power, but tried in a court in the capital Sana’a, which is controlled by the rebels. 

The Indian government evacuated over 5,000 Indians from Yemen in March 2015, but could not intervene in Ms Nimisha’s case as the rebel-led regime is not internationally recognised. The expats now request Kerala and Indian governments to act.

Mr V. Muraleedharan, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, told The Straits Times: “We are following the case through our Ambassador in Djibouti who looks after Yemen affairs. We will extend full help in Ms Nimisha’s case, including providing legal assistance or raising the issue with the local authorities.”

Mr Samuel Jerome Bhaskaran, an airline consultant and social worker who has helped evacuate stranded Indians in the past, is in Yemen trying to reach the murdered man’s family.

“The action council will offer them the blood money and ask for their forgiveness,” he said. If the expats do not succeed, Ms Nimisha might be executed in November.

Mr Thomas says the past five years were “so unbearable” that he tried to kill himself and his seven-year-old daughter three times. 

“I am stronger now, thanks to my brother and mother. I just want my wife to be alive and my family to be reunited,” he said.

Members of the Indian expat group say they are often asked why they are “trying to save a murderer”.

“As I see it, we as a society failed her, an educated woman struggling to work in a war-torn country to help her poor family. Now, it’s our social responsibility to try our best to save her life,” said Mr John. 

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