New Delhi: Twenty eight years after a Catholic nun, Sister Abhaya, was found dead in Kerala, a special CBI court Tuesday convicted two persons — Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy — of murder.
Initially labelled as that of a suicide, the Sister Abhaya case has seen several turns in the two decades since her body was found in a well in Kottayam in 1992 — from witnesses turning hostile to a thief becoming the key to nailing the accused.
Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy have been found guilty under Section 302 (murder) and Section 201 (destruction of evidence) of the Indian Penal Code. A third accused, Father Jose Poothrikkayil, was acquitted in 2018.
The quantum of punishment will be pronounced Wednesday.
Sister Abhaya, 21, was found dead in a well of her hostel in Kottayam on 27 March 1992. Local police and the crime branch of the state police had at the time said it was a case of suicide.
However, a year later, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the case when Sister Banicassia, Mother Superior, and 67 other nuns from the Knanaya Catholic Church that Abhaya was part of, wrote to then chief minister K. Karunakaran claiming the probe wasn’t conducted properly. At the same time, activist Jomon Puthenpurackal took the matter to court on the same grounds.
Father Thomas Kottoor, Sister Sephy and Sister Abhaya were all part of the Knanaya Catholic Church, headquartered in Kottayam. The 21-year-old was a graduation student in the college run by the church where Fr Kottoor, who was also secretary to the Bishop, taught psychology. She lived in the Pious Xth Convent Hostel, the place of crime. Sr Sephy stayed in the same hostel and was its de facto in-charge.
In 1996, three years after taking over the case, the CBI said it couldn’t yet conclude if this was a suicide or homicide. In its report, however, the agency said: “… assuming it to be a case of homicide, all possible efforts were made to determine the identity of culprits, if any, could have been involved in this tragic incident. However, our prolonged efforts, as indicated in the preceding paras, did not yield any fruitful results.”
The Chief Judicial Magistrate court rejected the report, and directed the CBI to continue with the investigation.
In its second report submitted in March 1997, the CBI called the death a homicide, based on the medical opinion of three doctors. Despite efforts though, however, the identity of the accused could not be established, and the CBI requested for the case to be treated “as closed being untraced”.
By August 2005, when the CBI submitted its final report, it had not yet managed to uncover the identity of the culprits. “…further investigation conducted, at the behest of the court, has not indicated involvement of any person in the death of Sister Abhaya,” the report stated with a request to close the case as ‘untraced’.
In 2008, the Kerala High Court handed the case to the CBI’s Kerala unit, giving it three months to investigate.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Nandakumaran Nair led the new investigation. His team recorded a statement from Sanju P. Mathew, who lived next to the hostel. Mathew said he had seen Fr Kottoor on the campus on the day of the crime. This finally led to the arrests of Fr Kottoor, Sr Sephy and Fr Jose Poothrikkayil in November 2008. All three accused were granted bail by the Kerala High Court six months later.
In July 2009, the CBI filed charge sheet against the accused. Nearly a decade later, in 2018, Fr Poothrikkayil was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
What CBI uncovered
According to the CBI’s findings, Sr Sephy was having an “affair” with the two other accused, and had been caught by Abhaya on the day of the crime.
Abhaya had apparently seen the three in a compromising position when she had gone to the kitchen to get water from the refrigerator around 4 am. To silence her, Fr Kottoor is believed to have strangled Abhaya while Sr Sephy hit her with an axe. The accused then dumped her body in the well.
Adakka Raja, a thief who had broken into the convent that morning, said he saw both priests there. Raja was the key witness in the case, which saw eight of the 49 witnesses turn hostile during trial.
The CBI case included circumstantial evidence such as a water bottle, a veil, an axe, a basket and Sr Abhaya’s slippers, besides narco analysis and brain mapping of the accused.
Speaking to ThePrint, activist Puthenpurackal said he knew Abhaya’s case wasn’t a suicide “from the first day itself”.
“I realised that it was not suicide when you see the scene of occurrence. The kitchen showed signs of a struggle. Her slipper was seen in one place, the other in another place. For Abhaya, who had come to drink some water from the fridge around 4 in the morning, it did not look as a suicide to us,” he explained.
“… [I] was questioned about the case while they were filing the charge sheet in the case. They found the accused guilty and now they have decided to punish them. I have been fighting for Sr Abhaya’s justice for 30 years in this case. I had appealed several times asking the authorities to find the guilty, arrest them and prosecute them,” he added.
(With inputs from Rohini Swamy, Bengaluru)