- Indian nurse Nimisha Priya was sentenced to death for the killing of a Yemeni national in 2017
- The victim allegedly abused Priya and kept her passport in his possession so she wouldn’t escape
- Save Nimisha Priya – International Action Council was rallying for Priya, saying she was denied access to proper legal defense
The life of an Indian nurse, who is on death row for the murder of a Yemeni national, could still be saved through “blood money” negotiations with the victim’s family, according to the lawyer representing the woman’s mother.
Family members, politicians and activists are rallying together to save the life of Nimisha Priya, who they say was a victim of war and was denied access to justice in Yemen, as the West Asian country was rife with its own internal conflicts during the trial.
“Either the case should be re-tried or she should be pardoned by accepting the blood money. She should get at least that much justice in her life,” human rights defender and the family’s lawyer, Subhash Chandran K.R., told International Business Times.
A trained nurse from the Indian state of Kerala, Priya has been behind bars since 2017 for the murder of her sponsor and alleged abuser Talal Abdo Mahdi.
The Supreme Court of Yemen dismissed her appeal against the death sentence on Nov. 13. Since then, Priya’s mother, Prema Kumari, has been waiting for permission to travel to Yemen in order to meet the victim’s family.
Priya had been working in private Yemeni hospitals for years before her husband and minor daughter moved back to India due to financial constraints in 2014. This was also the same year Houthi insurgents rose up against the Yemeni government and seized the capital of Sana’a, marking the beginning of civil war in the country.
As Yemeni law only allows nationals to set up businesses in the country, Priya sought the help of Mahdi to open up a clinic in 2015.
The family said Mahdi later began abusing and torturing her, and even claimed Priya was his wife.
When Mahdi accompanied Priya on a trip to Kerala in 2015, the Yemeni man allegedly stole the nurse’s wedding photograph, which he later morphed and used to support his claim of being married to her. Mahdi had allegedly forged documents and also misrepresented himself to Yemeni authorities as her husband, which consequently meant she could not receive any aid from them.
Apart from physically and financially abusing Priya, Mahdi had also kept her passport in his possession so she wouldn’t be able to escape.
In 2017, Priya sedated Mahdi in a bid to get her passport back from Mahdi’s possession. However, the Yemeni man died of an overdose.
Priya was sentenced to death by a trial court in 2020 without having the proper chance to legally defend herself.
“The entire process was in the Arabic language. She was unaware of the Arabic language. She did not know what documents she was signing, what charges were framed. She didn’t get proper legal defense. That’s why we are saying she is a victim of war and she has been denied access to justice,” Chandran said.
Priya appealed the death penalty to an appeal court in Sana’a, but her plea was dismissed. She then appealed to the Supreme Judicial Council, which also dismissed her appeal on Nov. 13.
While dismissing her plea, the appeal court had opened the option for blood money, which was the amount paid in compensation to the murdered victim’s family. Priya’s family and supporters are now exploring the blood money option, and working toward securing travel permissions for Priya’s mother to travel to Yemen and negotiate with Mahdi’s family.
The Delhi High Court in India heard Kumari’s petition seeking travel authorization to Yemen on Thursday.
“Considering the current political situation in Yemen, even if Nimisha’s parents or friends are going there, it would be very difficult for us to negotiate with the victim’s family,” Chandran said.
He also noted the matter was all the more complicated because the country in question was Yemen. The Indian government has banned the travel of Indians to the West Asian country.
“If we are reaching out to the family, and the victim’s family is pardoning, then her life will be saved,” the lawyer said. “But if this was any other gulf country or any other country in the world, we could have easily gotten in touch. Yemen is still under turmoil, still has internal conflicts. Even if we reach there, we don’t know how much is possible.”
The matter is also further complicated by Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, he noted.
The Houthi rebels that are controlling Sana’a have an anti-American, anti-Israel worldview and have been rallying behind the Palestinians in the ongoing war.
Hence, in light of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s immediate show of support for Israel following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Houthi rebels may not be open to talks with the Indian side.
“Many Arab countries are taking some kind of adverse steps against Indian citizens … ” Chandran said. “This should not affect this case also. That’s why we are asking the government to do the negotiations and start the process as early as possible. There is no embassy working in Yemen right now. The embassy is working from Djibouti.”
The Save Nimisha Priya – International Action Council, a group comprising politicians, Indian expatriates, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and others, are now urging the Indian government to use diplomatic ways to mediate with Yemeni authorities and facilitate Kumari’s entry to the country.
Chandran also said that the Save Nimisha Priya – International Action Council was only asking the Indian government to facilitate negotiations alone, while the council will take care of the blood money.
“We are not asking the government to pay even a single penny. We will raise the blood money amount. We will pay,” he said. “But we are unable to do the proper negotiation.”
As Priya’s life remains on the line, Chandran said she was mentally and emotionally under a lot of pressure, but was staying busy in jail by using her nursing experience to assist fellow inmates.
The lawyer also noted that Priya’s story of facing abuse at the hands of her sponsor was one that many other migrant workers from South Asia have faced in Arab countries. Workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and other nations are often tortured by their sponsor or employers and also denied access to their own passports.
Access to justice is one of the main issues among others faced by migrant workers, Chandran said.
“One issue they are facing is the language and [lack of] awareness about the local code,” Chandran said. “In some gulf countries, they are still following some kind of Draconian laws like the Kafala system in Saudi Arabia, which is like slavery. We are fighting against such Draconian laws, we are fighting to get access to justice for migrant workers.”
Platforms like Lawyers Beyond Borders and International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network are also working to provide legal assistance to migrant workers and also make policy changes in the gulf corridor, he added.