28 years later: Priest, nun convicted in Sister Abhaya murder case; experts hail verdict
A special Central Bureau of Investigation court in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday found the two accused in Sister Abhaya’s murder case guilty and their quantum of punishment will be announced on Wednesday, bringing a dramatic end to the 28-year-old case.
Both accused Thomas Kotoor and Sister Sefi were found guilty of murder (Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code), Section 449 (house trespassing to commit a crime) and Section 201 (destroying evidence) and other sections of the IPC. Special judge K Sanil Kumar will hear the convicts on Wednesday before reading out their sentences.
Third accused Sister Sefi broke down in court after hearing the verdict but the main accused Kotoor later said he was innocent and he will prove his innocence in the court of God. Second accused in the case Father Jose Poothrukayil was let off by the trial court last year after no evidence was found against him.
While most of the witnesses had turned hostile during the trial, the court said a few prosecution witnesses were strong and convincing. The CBI took over the probe after material evidence in the case was either destroyed or tampered with by the local police and crime branch. But its meticulous and scientific probe earned the central agency a lot of praise.
Sister Abhaya (19), a plus-two student, was found dead in the well of the Pious X Convent in Kottayam in March 1992. It was initially dismissed as a suicide by the state police and crime branch, but the CBI later concluded that it was murder. In 2009, the CBI charge-sheeted Catholic priest Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sefi in the case. Still it took 11 years to reach its logical conclusion due to prolonged legal battles.
Abhaya’s brother lauded the verdict. “God is great. Justice has been done to my sister, though it is delayed,” he said. Activist Joman Puthanpurakkal who single-handedly took up the case said his 28 years of work had turned fruitful finally. “It is a slap on the face of church authorities who shamelessly protected the murderers,” he said. He also took the name of a retired Supreme Court judge alleging he tried his best to sabotage the case and implicate him in a false case.
Former Deputy SP of the CBI Verghese P Thomas, who first investigated the case and later resigned from the agency alleging that he was pressurized by his senior officers to make it a suicide case, also expressed his happiness. “I paid a heavy price for embracing truth. I resigned when I had eight-nine years service. Most of my batch-mates were later promoted as DIG and IG. Today I feel my sacrifice was worth it,” he said. Leading a retired life, he said his conclusion that it was a clear case of murder had been proved right.
Legal experts have also hailed the verdict. “It is a good day for the judiciary. Truth prevailed finally. Credit goes to the CBI team headed by Nandakumar Nair and activists like Jomon Puthanpurakkal,” said senior lawyer B Jayashankar.
According to the CBI charge-sheet, on the day of her death, Abhaya got up early to study and went to the kitchen to wash her face. The charge-sheet surmised that she witnessed some sexual activity involving the two priests and nun and was killed because they feared she may disclose what she had witnessed.
She was first attacked with an axe and later dumped in the well, the CBI claimed. Although the case created a sensation in Kerala, the church stood by the accused, saying the accused were innocent.
Interestingly, the CBI had filed three reports in the case; in first report it said the death of Abhaya was a case of “homicidal suicide.” But this report was rejected by the court, which ordered a fresh investigation. In the second report, the agency said it could not establish beyond doubt whether it was a suicide or murder. In the last report it filed in 2008, the agency said it was a case of murder and arrested the two priests and nun. Jose Poothrukayil was absolved of all the charges before the final trial.
Many movies were made based on the theme of the sensational case. The poor parents of Abhaya who valiantly fought for justice died during the long years of legal battle. What makes the case different is that there were a flurry of petitions in different courts and many attempts to scuttle and delay the probe.
In 2008 retired ASI of Kerala police V Augustine who investigated the case initially committed suicide. In 2018, the CBI had made former SP K T Michael an accused in the case for destroying key evidence in the case. Later the high court had stayed action against the former SP. During the trail nine witnesses had turned hostile.
In 2008 the accused Sefi had filed a complaint against the CBI saying she was forced to undergo a virginity test by the agency without her consent. But the CBI said she did hymenoplasty (a surgical procedure to repair broken hymen) after the case erupted to prove she was a virgin. The CBI later submitted hospital details to cement its claim. Later the court had rejected her plea.
Besides the nature of the case in which there was no direct witness, the lengthy legal procedure made the case different. Though the CBI charge-sheeted the three in 2009, the accused moved discharge petitions in different courts. These pleas took nine years to reach any conclusion as the court discharged one of them but rejected the petitions of the other two.
Interestingly one of the main witnesses in the case was a small-time robber, Raju. He was on the premises of the convent for stealing areca nuts when the incident took place. He reportedly told CBI officers that he saw two priests and a nun at the convent around the time of Abhaya’s death. He later said he was promised many things to own up to the crime and change his statement but he stuck to his testimony. “I am the happiest man today. I stuck to the truth till the last,” he said after the verdict.
The long legal battle put the church in a spot after it supported the accused. It is yet to react to the verdict. A spokesman of the Kanaya Catholic church said it will release a statement later in the day.
But reformers in the church want it to change its position and stand with the victim not the accused “It is happiest day in my life. A poor girl got justice after so many years. I hope it will open the eyes of church authorities,” said Sister Lucy Kalapura who was expelled from the congregation last year for supporting a stir against rape accused Bishop Franco Mullakal.