A Special CBI Court in Kerala on Monday found Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of the 1992 murder of Sister Abhaya. The court held Kottoor (69) and Sephy (55) guilty under Section 302 (murder) and Section 201 (destruction of evidence) of the IPC.
The duo have been sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 5 lakh each. They have also been sentenced to seven years imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of Rs 50,000 each under section 201 IPC (destruction of evidence).
Additionally, Kottoor has also been sentenced an additional life sentence and a fine of Rs 1 lakh under Section 449 IPC (house-trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death). The sentences will run concurrently.
The judgement has ended one of Kerala's longest-running investigations which spanned 28 years and many twists and turns as several key witnesses turned hostile.
Who was Sister Abhaya and how did she die?
Born in 1973 as Beena Thomas, Abhaya was Syro-Malabar Catholic Church nun living at St Pius X Convent in Kottayam. Sister Abhaya was 18 at the time of her death and was studying for a pre-degree. She was was found dead in a well on convent premises on March 27, 1992. Local police retrieved her body and led the investigations before the case was transferred to the Kerala Crime Branch in April 1992. Both investigations ruled Sister Abhaya's death a suicide.
What was the public reaction to death and the closure of the case?
Sister Abhaya's death triggered an outrage with many questioning the police's conclusion that Sister Abhaya died by suicide. Local activist Jomon Puthenpurackal accused the police of botching the investigation and alleged that Sister Abhaya was in fact murdered. He formed the Sister Abhaya Action Council to find justice for the dead nun. The Mother Superior and 67 nuns of Sister Abhaya's Carmilite Congregation pressured the CBI into filing an FIR into the death. The CBI finally took over the case on April 7, 1992.What did the CBI find?
The CBI filed three closure reports in 1996, 1999 and 2005. However, the agency was frequently criticised for trying to hush up the case.
The case generated headlines after Deputy Superintendent Varghese P. Thomas, who led the CBI's first investigation into the case, resigned from service after accusing his superior Superintendent V Thyagarajan of pressurising him to rule the death as suicide. Thomas had come to the conclusion that Sister Abhaya had been murdered.
Following Thomas' resignation, a second team was placed in charge of the investigation.
In 1996, the CBI stated that it could not find conclusive evidence to prove whether Sister Abhaya's death was a suicide or a homicide.
The second report filed in 1999 concluded that the death was a homicide based on a medical examination of Sister Abhaya's body. However, it also stated that the perpetrators could not be identified on the basis of the evidence.
The 2005 report by CBI came to the conclusion that nobody was involved in Sister Abhaya's death. The Chief Judicial Magistrate rejected all three reports.
In 2008, the High Court transferred the case to the Kochi unit of the CBI and gave it three months to finish its investigation.
What was the Kerala CBI's findings?
The Kerala CBI filed a chargesheet naming two priests - Thomas Kottur, Jose Puthurukkayil and a nun - Sister Sephy - as accused in Sister Abhaya's murder. The trio were arrested on November 19, 2008.
The CBI detailed the events leading up to and after Sister Abhaya's death. The 19-year-old had woken up at 4 am to study for her exams. When she went to the kitchen to drink some water, she allegedly saw Kottur, Puthurukkayil and Sephy in a "compromising position". Fearing she would disclose what she saw, Sephy struck Abhaya with an axe while Kottur strangulated her. They then dumped her body in the well. The report also cited various evidence found strewn around the convent premises.
Were the evidence tampered with?
In 2008, the CBI accused the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) of tampering with CD of narco-analysis tests conducted on the accused. In 2009, several Malayalam news channels aired the tapes where the accused revealed the events of the night of Sister Abhaya's murder. Sister Abhaya's father Thomas Aikkarakunnel filed a petition seeking to examine the authenticity of the tapes.
The CBI siezed the master tapes from the FSL lab in Bengaluru. In 2009, a team from the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology, Thiruvananthapuram found that the tapes had been tampered with.
In February 2020, the High Court ruled that narco-analysis and brain mapping results cannot be used as evidence following on the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 ruling which ruled that narco-analysis and other such test cannot be conducted without the person's consent.
In 2018, a CBI court found former Kottayam Crime Banch SP KT Michael guilty on charges of destruction of evidence and conspiracy. Michael led the local crime branch unit's investigation into Sister Abhaya's death in 1992.
A CBI investigation had found that eight material evidences collected by the local police in 1992 including Abhaya's diary, clothes and footwear worn by her at the time of her death were destroyed by Michael. The CBI also alleged that Matthew had a close relationship with the St Pius X Convent.
Father Jose Poothrikkayil, was discharged by the CBI Court in 2018. Discharging Poothrikkayil, the CBI court held that the prosecution had failed to bring out sufficient material to proceed against him. Challenging the CBI Court decision discharging Poothrikkayil in the case, a plea was filed in the High Court. The court, however, rejected it.
In October 2020, the High Court directed to expedite the trial by doing it on a day-to-day basis. The Court allowed cross-examination of witnesses through video conferencing mode considering the pandemic situation.
Who is Adakka Raju, the main witness?
Raju K alias Adakka Raju, a small-time robber, claimed he was present on the convent premises when the incident took place. He told CBI officials that he saw two priests and a nun at the convent under mysterious circumstances.
On Monday, Raju told Asianet News Channel, "I suffered a lot. I got big promises to own up to the crime, but I refused to budge. I want the truth to come out."
Though 49 witnesses appeared for the hearing, 8 crucial witnesses turned hostile in the case.Adressing the media Sister Abhaya Action Council's Jomon Puthenpurackal, "Even if I die today, I am happy. I have got justice for Abahya."
Sister Abhaya's father, Thomas, who battled for justice for his daughter for over two decades, died of cardiac arrest on July 24, 2016. Her mother, Leelamma, too passed away – sometime after 2016.