Abdul Kareem Lalji is a big, towering personality; you can spot him from quite a distance. This largeness to his body size extends to his demeanor; cordial and likable, ready to listen to everybody with a ready, albeit wry smile. The man has been through a lot of trials and tribulations for a 43-year-old, 5 of them under the almost certainty of dangling from a noose till death in Yemeni gallows.
I meet Kareem in Iraq, where he currently resides with his family – a wife, two daughters and 3 sons. And a host of cousins, all refugees escaping the horrors and cataclysm in Yemen. I have yet to hear a no from his mouth; everything is possible. He begins his responses to requests with a khalaas, and it is done. It is Abdul Kareem’s administrative acumen that endears him so much to me, he makes carefully sure that CAI is compliant to the many worldwide projects undertaken. His personal history, however, is most remarkable, so I am eager to put it to pen. But the man is super busy, so I have to wait at least a couple of years before I can get the man to tell me all. Here it is, interesting and fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did scripting it.
My name is Abdul Kareem Lalji, born in July 1976 to Indian Khoja heritage parents, number 5 in a family of 6. The Lalji family were well established in Aden, with flourishing businesses. My elementary/middle education was in local Arabic schools with English as a second language. I got interested in political affairs of my country when I went to college, so wrote activism articles, mostly against the dictatorship of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Out of college and running my own lucrative business as an importer of nuts from Iran and Lebanon got the attention of the secret security apparatus of the Yemeni president in 2008. This fact, coupled with my past political writings and the perceived Houthi threat to Yemen got me arrested. It was a mass arrest, about 200 mostly Shia Muslims were detained and accused of aiding the Houthi rebels planning subversion in Yemen. I was put into a solitary suffocating cell, hot and humid and given limited food, barely enough to live on. I was interrogated during the days, and tortured – my toenail was pulled out and genitals abused. I was given this treatment for 17 days and then, together with 5 other Khoja Shia Muslims, flown to the gallows of Sanaa.
The judge at my trail summarily sentenced me to hang until death for being a rebel to the government of Yemen, a charge I vehemently refuted and denied; obviously, I appealed the death sentence. Not seeing and meeting my wife, daughters Zainab, Shireen and son Hussein was incredibly painful, much more than the time I spent at Sanaa Central Jail; about 4.5 years. My wife came to visit a couple of times but the dicey all-men jail environment made it unpalatable to continue coming all the way from Aden.
The core of my faith was resolutely tested for this punishment; for which I was completely innocent. The noose of a death-rope constantly caressing my neck was a debilitating feeling. I was made to clean the filthy jail toilets, something I detested intensely. The food was terrible but my family was able to bribe outside food sometimes. Yet, alhamd’Allah, I did not lose faith in Allah and the Aemaas (a). I prayed a lot, fasted most days and completed reciting the Quraan several times, each one in 5 days flat; my childhood madressa teachers would have been astounded; but gallantly proud.
The days turned into months and then years, while the appeal process ground on through various red tape and bottlenecks. My family, understandably, became increasingly fretful and my mother almost a nervous wreck; there was nothing that could be done to hurry the process, however. I was made an administrative manager of the jail library, and I was very good at it. It also gave me some power over other inmates, against who I used with considerable advantage. These developments gave me a reason to occupy my mind and not dwell too much on the impending hanging.
For what it’s worth, the British, with their justice administrative system that is still used in Yemen, worked in my favor. The death sentence was thrown out by the appeal court in 2010 due to lack of credible evidence; I was so relieved; my family ecstatic. However, my trials did not end as the government filed for a retrial. When the appeal verdict was upheld by a superior appeals court in 2013, I was given a piece of paper to sign. The President was willing to release me if I accepted responsibility for treason. I would be sentenced to 5 years imprisonment, the time I had already served and I would walk a free man. I steadfastly refused. I was innocent. I wanted a complete vindication.
The government, however, were equally adamant. Accept the guilty plea or rot in jail on some pretext or another, they threatened. Both my wife and mother wanted the torture of uncertainty to end and with this handicap, I was emotionally broken. I relented and signed the confession under duress. I was released super-fast and flown to Sanaa the same day, on March 27, 2013, a free man, 35 kilos lighter.
With the wind of my family and dua of my mother beneath my wings, I began a normal life anew, opening a couple of businesses. And flourished. The political air, however, deteriorated very fast and my beloved Yemen split into 2 again; staying on was intolerable, playing Russian roulette with my family’s lives was inexcusable. I left Yemen with scores of other Khojas as we were evacuated to Djibouti on April 15, 2015. We lived in Djibouti for a year, 3 months as guests of the World Federation of KSIJ. With my assets dwindling fasta-fasta after the 3 months and not very much to do in Djibouti, we found succor in war-torn Iraq, the land of my Imams (a).
Iraq is my home, for now. Until beloved Yemen beckons to me once more. Soon insha’Allah.
*** As related to me over a period of 2 years, beginning sometime mid-2017 through early 2019.