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From ‘suicide’ to conviction of Father Thomas and Sister Sephy: How it took 28 years for Sister Abhaya to get justice

The victim was a pre-degree student at a college, administered by the Catholic Church. Her body was discovered at a well in St. Pius Convent in Kottayam in Kerala on March 27, 1992. The local police and the Crime Branch had initially dubbed the case as a 'suicide'.

‘Justice delayed is just denied’ but for family members of Sister Abhaya, whose life came to a tragic end at the tender age of 19, it is a day of relief. In a major development on Tuesday, a special CBI court found two people guilty for the murder of Catholic nun in 1992. The quantum of punishment will be delivered tomorrow by the Court.

The victim was a pre-degree student at a college, administered by the Catholic Church. Her body was discovered at a well in St. Pius Convent in Kottayam in Kerala on March 27, 1992. The local police and the Crime Branch had initially dubbed the case as a ‘suicide’.

However, it was only a year later that the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the probe in the case, following a complaint by one Sister Banicassia, and 66 other nuns to the then Kerala Chief Minister K Karunakaran and a legal battle by Jomon Puthenpurackal.

Suicide or homicide?

The date was March 29, 1993, when the CBI finally stepped in. The nuns informed the CM about the botched up investigation in the case and appealed that the case is handed over to the central agency to investigate the murder angle.

When the CBI, led by SP A K Ohri began its probe, it was faced with hurdles. Due to the lack of medical evidence, the central agency could not conclude whether the death of Sister Abhaya was a homicide or suicide. Under the assumption that the case was that of a homicide, the CBI team made ‘prolonged efforts’ to determine the culprits but failed – an explanation in the initial report that was dismissed by the chief judicial magistrate court.

CBI hits a dead end

In its 2nd final report, filed under Deputy SP Surinder Paul, the CBI concluded that the case was that of homicide. The conclusion of the investigative team was premised on the medical opinion of three doctors, who had ruled Sister Abhaya’s death as murder, contrary to the claims of the doctor (Dr C Radhakrishnan) who conducted the autopsy. However, the CBI team was yet to trace the culprits or establish their identity. As such, it appealed to the court to consider the case as ‘closed being untraced’.

But, the 2nd report was rejected by the court as well. As such, the case remained open and this time officer RR Sahay was given the responsibility to lead the investigation. 13 years had passed by then and there was no trace of the accused. In August 2005, the CBI filed a third final report, reiterating that the agency could not find ‘involvement of any person’ and requested for the case to be closed. The request was rejected again by the court and the probe continued.

The Breakthrough in the Sister Abhaya case

By 2008 (16 years after the incident), the CBI had filed for the closure of the case four times due to lack of evidence. As such, the Kerala High Court on September 4, 2008, directed the State unit of CBI in Kochi to take up the case. The Court gave the agency a three-month time to complete the investigation. Under Deputy SP Nandakumaran Nair, the Kerala unit of CBI began its probe.

The first breakthrough in the case came in the form of eyewitness Sanju P Mathew, who lived next to the convent. In his recorded statement, he said that he had seen one Father Thomas Kottoor in the hostel campus of Sister Abhaya, a day before her deceased body was discovered. His statement marked the arrest of Father Thomas Kottoor, one Father Jose Puthrikkayl and one Sister Sephy. Accordingly, a charge sheet was filed against the three on July 17, 2009.

Allegations of evidence tampering

In July 2007, the CBI received the Court approval to undergo narco-tests on the suspects of the case. As such, the tests were conducted on August 3, 2007, in Bengaluru. Following the tests, the CBI informed the Court that the investigative team did not find ‘no new facts’ in the Sister Abhaya case. The central agency had submitted the copy of the test results to the narco-analysis results to the Court in a CD.

However, it was soon unearthed that the master tapes of the test results were tampered with. The revelation came after technical experts at the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT) in Thiruvanthapuram had investigated the tapes as a part of a forensic probe, directed by CJM court in Kochi. It was found that the tape of Father Thomas Kottoor, Sister Sephy and Father Puthrukkaayil was edited at 30, 23 and 19 places respectively.

In December 2019, the Kerala High Court ruled that brain mapping and narco-analysis and cannot be used as evidence, even if the consent of the accused is sought. The Court said that the test results can only be used to prove ‘discovery of fact’ as per the Indian Evidence Act (Section 27). As such, the doctors involved in the narco tests, namely N Krishnaveni and Pravin Parvathappa, were not examined by the trial court.

Circumstantial evidence to the rescue

The Central Bureau of Investigation relied on circumstantial evidence to ensure the conviction of the accused. The investigative team had found a messy kitchen that suggested a tussle between the victim and the perpetrators, prior to her murder.

As per the evidence provided by the CBI, a dripping water bottle was found near the fridge while the veil of Sister Abhaya was discovered below the exit door. Interestingly, the door was found locked from outside and slippers of the victim were spotted at two different places in the kitchen. Moreover, the CBI team also found that the door was unlatched from inside and discovered an axe and a basket on the ground. Although no bloodstains were found, the circumstantial evidence was clear to indicate a physical altercation in the kitchen.

Motives behind the gruesome murder

The CBI told the Court that Sister Abhaya found two priests, namely, Father Thomas Kottoor, and Father Jose Puthrikkayl and a nun Sister Sephy in a ‘compromising position’ on the morning of March 27, 1992. Fearing a backlash from the Church where the cardinal rule of ‘celibacy’ must be upheld, the accused decided to kill the victim.

The CBI counsel stated that Sister Sephy hit the victim with an axe while that Sister Abhaya was pushed into a well by the accused. It is important to point out that the victim was still alive when she was thrown into the well. The CBI argued that the accused did everything possible to destroy evidence and hide their sexual relationship. One of the accused, Father Jose Puthrikkayl was acquitted by a CBI trial court in 2018 for lack of evidence.

In today’s verdict, the special CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram found Sister Sephy and Father Thomas Kottoor guilty of the murder of Sister Abhaya in 1992. They have also been facing charges for criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence. After fighting the case for 28 years, activist Jomon Puthenpurackal, who had faced personal setbacks while pursuing the case, emphasised that the verdict restored the trust of the public in the Judiciary.

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