Date: 23 December, 2020
by Parul Dhingra, UILS Panjab University
ON THE NIGHT OF THE INCIDENT
March 27, 1992 : A 21 year old student of pre-degree course & nun of Syro Malabar Catholic Church, Sister Abhaya was found dead in the well of Pious Tenth Convent at Kottayam.
There were three accused in the case: Fr Thomas Kottoor, Fr Jose Poothrukayil and Sister Sephy
The prosecution charge is that Abhaya was hit with a hand axe and then dumped in the well of the convent by the three accused when they realised Abhaya had discovered them in “objectionable circumstances”.
LINGERING INVESTIGATION PROCESS: FROM POLICE TO CBI
January, 1993 : Investigation by Kerala police & state crime branch; report – SUICIDE.
CBI took over the investigation.
December 6, 1996; July 12, 1999; August 30, 2005 : Three closure reports filed by CBI on the said dates in the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam.
First report – hard to say whether death of Sister Abhaya was suicidal or homicidal.
Second report - it was murder but was hard to establish the identity of the perpetrators
Third report - no one was involved in sister Abhaya's death
All the three closure reports were rejected and further probe was ordered.
November 1 , 2008: CBI Kochi unit took charge of the investigation
November 18, 2008: Three accused in the case—Fr Thomas Kottoor, Fr Jose Poothrikayil and Sr Sephy—arrested after 16 years of Sister Abhaya’s death.
July,2009 : Chargesheet filed by CBI against the three accused in the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam. They were charged with murder, destruction of evidence, and defamation.
March 16, 2011: Release petition filed by three accused in the CJM Court, Ernakulam.
March 7, 2018: Thiruvananthapuram CBI Court rejected the release petition of Fr Kottoor and Sr Sephy but Fr Poothrukayil was released citing inadequate evidence.
STAGE OF TRIAL
August 26, 2019: Sister Abhaya’s murder trial began in CBI Special Court, Thiruvananthapuram.
December 12, 2019: The High Court quashed the Thiruvananthapuram CBI Special Court order summoning two doctors (N. Krishnaveni and Pravin Parvathappa) who had conducted narco analysis tests on the accused. The court observed that the narco analysis conducted on the accused was inadmissible as evidence according to the Supreme Court judgment in the Selvi v. State of Karnataka case (2010) 7 SCC 263.
The SC had held that interrogation techniques such as narcoanalysis, lie-detector tests, and brain-mapping violated an accused person’s right against self-incrimination under Article 20(3), and his/her right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.
WITNESS TURNED HOSTILE: ANOTHER TWIST IN THE CASE
Sister Anupama told the Court that she had not said that she had seen Abhaya's footwear and headscarf, and an axe in the kitchen, the supposed scene of the crime. The CBI argument was that Abhaya's belongings lay scattered on the kitchen floor, hinting at the violence done to her.
Sanju P. Mathew, the fourth witness in the case, had told the CBI during interrogation that he had seen Fr Kottoor's scooter parked in front of the convent on the night of Sr Abhaya's death, and also on the night before. But, before the CBI Special Court, Sanju said that he made that statement under duress.
As a consequence, the CBI had just the testimony of a thief, Adaykka Raju, to rely on to establish the presence of Fr Kottoor inside the convent on the night of Abhaya's death. Raju stuck to his earlier statement that he had seen two priests sneak into the convent while he was trying to steal the copper strips on the lightning conductor installed on the roof of the convent.
Raju, who had entered the convent premises allegedly to steal copper wire when the nun was murdered, turned prime witness as several of the 177 witnesses have either died or turned hostile during the 28 years and nine months.
THE FINAL AND MUCH AWAITED VERDICT
Twenty eight years after Sister Abhaya’s death, a Special CBI Court in Thiruvananthapuram on 22 December found Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, a priest and nun of the Catholic Church respectively, guilty of murder in the case.
The CBI court sentenced the priest and the nun to life imprisonment for murder on on 23 December, 2020.