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Crowdfunding blood money: The Indian diaspora’s quest to save a struggling nurse from death

Nimisha was sentenced to capital punishment for poisoning a Yemeni with whom she opened a clinic in 2015. Her only recourse is to offer the dead man’s clan ‘blood money’ in exchange for freedom

Tomy Thomas (49) has had sleepless nights the past seven years because his wife Nimisha Priya (35) is on death row in faraway Yemen. Nimisha is from Kerala, south India, and her story has been hitting the headlines back home: she was convicted for the murder of her Yemeni business partner, and is awaiting a pardon from the victim’s family in exchange for ‘diya’, or blood money.

A major step towards a resolution was completed on Monday (June 24) when a group of Malayalis (as people from Kerala are known) completed collecting $40,000 required for the pre-negotiation with the clan heads (to which the victim’s family belongs). 

Of this sum, $20,000 was transferred to India’s ministry of external affairs. The ministry in turn will pass the money on to the Indian embassy in Djibouti, the country across the Horn of Africa, which handles India’s affairs in war-torn Yemen.

Houthi supporters chant slogans as they participate in a rally to mark the eight-year anniversary of the civil war, on March 26, 2023 in Sana’a, Yemen.

©  Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

“Our next move is to connect with the clan heads and speed up the process,” advocate Subhash Chandran KR, who moved a writ petition on behalf of Nimisha’s mother, Prema Kumari (58) at the Delhi High Court, told RT. “Once that is done, we can begin crowdfunding for the actual blood money.” 

This is not the first instance of blood money being collected through a global Malayali crowdfunding effort. They gathered $4 million in April to secure the release of Abdul Rahim, also of Kerala, in April. He was facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

This worldwide group of Malayalis helping the woman is the Save Nimisha Priya International Action Council (SNPIAC). It succeeded in sending Prema Kumari to Yemen to meet her daughter at the Sana’a central prison in Yemen’s capital on April 24, after the Delhi High Court permitted her to travel; India has a travel ban to Yemen in place, given the political and security situation. The mother-daughter reunion was their first meeting in 12 years.

(L to R) Samuel Jerome, the representative in Yemen; Subhash Chandran, the advocate in Delhi; Nimisha’s daughter; Nimisha’s mother, Prema Kumari; and Tomy, Nimisha’s husband.

©  Nimisha Priya’s family

Turn of events 

Nimisha Priya is from Palakkad in Kerala and worked as a nurse in Yemen from 2009. She was convicted of murdering Talal Abdo Mahdi, a Yemeni, in 2017.

The two met in 2014 after her husband Tomy, along with their then one-year-old daughter, returned to Kerala in April 2014. “We came back to reduce expenses, hoping to reunite soon,” Tomy told RT. “Nimisha joined us in Kerala in April 2015 and we discussed starting a clinic in Yemen.” 

Tomy is from Idukki in Kerala and their now 12-year-old daughter lives with him. In debt, he sold his autorickshaw a few months ago and is now a daily wager. Nimisha’s mother lives in Ernakulam and works as a domestic help. 

Tomy married Nimisha in 2011 and a year later they made their first trip to Yemen. He worked as a company labourer who resigned before returning to Kerala. 

“We were living happily both in our hometown and in Yemen,” Tomy said. “I want her back, if possible today itself. It was a dark time, for half of 2017 we were clueless about what was happening. I was devastated hearing that she was jailed. We have a debt of Rs 7.5 million ($90,000) borrowed to start the clinic. For an ordinary person, this is a huge debt. I have been drained physically, mentally, and financially.” 

Nimisha Priya and Tomy on their wedding day.

©  Nimisha Priya’s family

Nimisha went back to Yemen and started the clinic in 2015, just as Yemen’s nine-year civil war was breaking out.

“But we needed more money for me and our daughter to join her. She didn’t take our kid with her because starting the clinic required traveling to faraway places to buy material. I raised some money by borrowing, but by the time the money reached Yemen the war had already started and our visas couldn’t be processed,” Tomy said. 

Prema Kumari’s writ petition stated that Yemen was gripped by civil war the same year, and Tomy and their daughter could not return as the country stopped issuing new visas. 

Nimisha joined hands with Mahdi to set up the clinic in Sana’a because, under Yemen’s law, only nationals are allowed to do so.

In due course, Mahdi began raising claims for the clinic’s income. He was already married but told others that he and Nimisha were married, according to Prema Kumari’s writ petition. Under Yemeni law, based on the Shariat, a man is allowed four wives, so no one questioned him. 

In 2015 Mahdi accompanied Nimisha Priya to Kerala when she came for a one-month visit. During the trip, he allegedly stole a wedding photograph that he later morphed to include his own face. The fake image would later buttress his claim of being married to Nimisha. 

Mahdi even visited the Kumaris in India. “He seemed friendly and wished to visit Kerala and we agreed, though we were initially hesitant,” Tomy recalled. “We suspected nothing. We took him around our home district during the holiday.”

Talal Abdo Mahdi

©  Nimisha Priya’s family

Mahdi allegedly started pilfering the clinic’s income and was aggressive when Nimisha questioned him about it. That soon turned into physical torture, the woman stated to The New Minute outlet in 2020. 

He beat her in front of clinic staff, and even spat at her as he made  threats at gunpoint, the report said. He seized Nimisha’s passport to prevent her from leaving Yemen, took all the clinic’s money and her ornaments, prompting Nimisha to make a complaint to the police.

But instead, the police arrested Nimisha. They believed she was Mahdi’s wife – which he himself asserted – and thus she had no grounds to complain against him, under Yemeni law.  

She was jailed for six days, according to the writ petition. On leaving jail, the severity of torture by Mahdi increased. 

The murder and death sentence

According to Nimisha’s statements, in 2016-2017 Mahdi was imprisoned on multiple occasions over her complaints of assault, and others – allegedly pertaining to money, land fraud and other issues.

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In July 2017, Nimisha sought the help of the warden of a jail near the clinic, where Mahdi had been locked up briefly. The warden suggested she sedate Mahdi with ketamine to coax him to return her passport. 

However, the sedation was ineffective as Mahdi was a substance user. Nimisha tried a stronger dose – and in minutes he died from an overdose.

According to court documents, Nimisha called a fellow nurse, Hanan, who disposed of the body by chopping it into pieces. Hanan is currently serving a life sentence in Yemen. Nimisha claimed she had no idea what Hanan was doing as she had taken anti-anxiety medication after Mahdi’s death.

A trial court in Yemen sentenced Nimisha Priya to death in 2020. She filed an appeal in Sana’a. The Appeal Court in March 2022 dismissed it, and an appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council in 2023.

“Nimisha Priya is unlikely to be spared the punishment awarded by the lower court as the Supreme Judicial Council rarely sets aside the verdict of the appeal court as it will only examine procedural errors affecting the outcome of the case, not its merits,” the petition reads. “Now, to escape the death penalty she must gain pardon from the deceased’s family by paying blood money in accordance with (Shariah law).” 

A woman carrying her child walks at a street market in the old city of Sanaa. Photo: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa

©  Hani Al-Ansi/picture alliance via Getty Images

An Action Council on a tough mission 

Jayan Edappal, a non-resident Indian living in the UK, was a delegate at the second edition of the Loka Kerala Sabha – a state government initiative to bring the sizeable Malayali diaspora to a single platform. A cousin sent him a newspaper clipping about Nimisha Priya in 2022, asking if he could help. 

A WhatsApp group was formed and the first formal meeting of the group was held on September 3,  Jayan told RT. “People from 56 countries, from the Loka Kerala Sabha, lawyers and media persons took part in the Zoom meeting,” Jayan said. He was selected as general convenor and PM Jabir, a Malayali social activist in Oman, as the Chairman. “And we took it from there.” 

The 19-member action council has met online once or twice a month, while the 130-member general council meets once every three or four months. Apart from helping the family with legal measures and negotiation efforts, the action council also crowdfunded the initial negotiation that cost $40,000. 

“Yemen was war-hit and the world had no clue about Nimisha’s arrest,” advocate Subhash Chandran KR told RT. (He too is a Lok Kerala Sabha member and part of the action council). “In 2020 the trial court sentenced Nimisha to death, and the news was carried in a few Malayalam dailies. That got our attention.”

The action council has sought political and ministerial help across party lines to free Nimisha Priya. 

“The attempts are based on the blood money option left open by Yemen’s appeal court, though it rejected the petition to dismiss the death sentence,” Subhash Chandran said. His colleague Krishna LR helped in Prema Kumari’s writ petitions. 

Families in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, visit the graves of their relatives who lost their lives in clashes in the 9th year of the civil war in the country, on April 13, 2023.

©  Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The blood option, the legal system in Yemen

For Nimisha Priya to be freed, the clan heads should forgive her, her mother, and her family in the first phase. Only this will lead to the negotiation with the victim’s family to accept ‘diyah,’ or blood money. 

Islam is the Yemeni state religion and Islamic Sharia is defined as the source of law and relevant legislation. 

Samuel Jerome Bhaskaran, from Tamil Nadu and working in Yemen for over three decades, is a member of the action council holding the Power of Attorney in the case. A Yemeni lawyer, appointed by the embassy in Djibouti, represents Nimisha in Yemen. 

“The practical difficulty before us was the travel ban,” Subhash Chandran says. “We have been trying to get permission from the Union government to lift the travel ban to send a relative of Nimisha’s to Yemen since 2022. There is no organised diaspora in Yemen for the blood money negotiations so we sought permission.”

People lift rifles, Yemeni and Palestinian flags, and Houthi emblems and shout slogans as they participate in a mass demonstration staged in solidarity with the Palestinian people, on May 10, 2024, in Sana’a, Yemen.

©  Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

A long way to go 

Prema Kumari filed three writ petitions for access to her daughter in the Delhi High Court and it was only on the third appeal that she was allowed to travel. 

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“The permission was granted after a legal fight for one and a half years from March 2022 to December 2023,” Subhash Chandran said. “But there are still steps left. The blood money option is at the discretion of the victim’s family, and with internal conflict in the region it’s still difficult to reach out to the family. Also, we need to convince tribal leaders there.”

Tomy, however, is hopeful. 

“I have sleepless nights. Nimisha used to update me on all developments. My wife is smart, I know her inside out and am willing to give my heart to her. The media has made up many stories about her. It is because of the action council that we have reached so far. Now that her mother is in Yemen. We have come a long way, right? I am hopeful she will be released,” he says. 

For now, Nimisha waits. Her mother is also in Yemen, hoping for a visa extension that will allow her stay on. With the Supreme Judicial Council having dismissed her appeal in 2023, the actual death warrant has not yet been issued, and the date of execution has not yet been decided. It is against this ticking clock that Nimisha’s well-wishers are racing against.

June 27, 2024 at 11:14AM

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