A CBI Special Court finds Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder in the sensational Sister Abhaya case of 1992

Published : December 22, 2020 19:23 IST

Father Thomas Kottoor (in white shirt being taken to a prison after his COVID-19 test, in Thiruvananthapuram on December 22. Photo: PTI

Twenty-eight years after the death of Sister Abhaya, a student nun belonging to the Knanaya Catholic community, at a convent hostel in Kottayam, a Special Court of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Thiruvananthapuram has found the first and third accused in the sensational case, Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, guilty of murder.

The much-awaited verdict was pronounced by the Special Court judge J. Sanal Kumar on December 22.

The second accused in the case, Father Jose Poothrukayil, was let off last year as the court held that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to proceed against him and a key witness (whose statement was not properly recorded) had died before the trial. A plea challenging this decision of the CBI court too was subsequently rejected by the Kerala High Court.

On March 27, 1992, the body of the 19-year-old nun was found inside the well of the St. Pius X Convent Hostel in Kottayam. The local police and the Crime Branch investigated the case, but both the agencies concluded that it was a case of suicide, against the popular perception in Kerala at that time (See the Archives section on our website for a report on the case, “A case of cover-up?”, Frontline, May 19, 1995).

At the time of the incident, Sister Abhaya was a second-year pre-degree student at the BCM College, Kottayam. Father Thomas Kottoor was a teacher at the same college and Sister Sephy was the person in temporary charge of the convent hostel.

What followed the death of the nun was nearly three decades of controversial inquiries by various agencies, the disappearance or death of suspects and witnesses, unbelievable efforts to distort the case at every stage by “unseen hands” with political backing, intense rivalry among investigating officers, a vicious trial by the media and, eventually, critical scrutiny of the investigation by the courts.

Throughout all this was the public-spirited pursuit of the course of the investigation by the “Sister Abhaya Case Action Council”, led by human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal and others from 1993, and efforts by Abhaya’s parents (who died in 2016) to get justice for their daughter.

Following popular pressure and a legal battle launched by Jomon Puthenpurackal, the case was first taken over by the CBI in March 1993. Four different teams of the CBI investigated the case on the orders of various courts. The first CBI team sought a closure of the case in 1996 because, it said, “all the evidence had been destroyed”; another team said in July 1999 that Abhaya had indeed been murdered but it could not arrest anyone because the evidence had been destroyed; the third team claimed in August 2005 that it could not proceed further in the case because of lack of evidence, despite the court insisting that the earlier inquiries had not been properly conducted and the CBI should apply scientific methods of investigation.

The Kerala High Court insisted that the CBI could not wriggle out of the inquiry on the grounds of lack of evidence. On November 1, 2008, it directed the Kochi unit of the CBI to take over the investigation under its supervision.

The first arrests in the case, of Father Thomas Kottoor, Sister Sephy and Father Jose Poothrukayil, were made on November 19, 2009, 16 years after Sister Abhaya’s death. The CBI informed the court then that on the day she died, Abhaya had been hit twice with an axe on the back of her head because, it alleged, she had seen the accused in a compromising position that night at the convent hostel. The investigators also told the court that her body was taken out of the kitchen and dumped in the convent well later.

Nine prosecution witnesses in the case turned hostile during the trial which began in August 2019.

The CBI had also named an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) of the local police station and a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of the Crime Branch as accused in the case for helping destroy evidence. But both of them died during the pendency of the case. V.V. Augustine, the ASI who prepared the inquest report in the case in 1992 and a key witness was questioned by the CBI several times, was found dead in a compound near his home in Kottayam, his wrist slashed and mouth covered with froth. The local police said a suicide note blaming the CBI was found in his pocket. It was one among the many strange incidents linked to the Abhaya case.

Another important incident in the case was the resignation of the CBI officer who was in charge of the investigation in December 1993 . Deputy Superintendent of Police Varghese P. Thomas, submitted his resignation midway through the investigation. He later called a press conference in Kochi and indicated that he was being forced by his superior officer to conclude that Abhaya had taken her own life while, in fact, his investigation had shown that she had been murdered. Thomas also alleged that the State Crime Branch, which had conducted the inquiry earlier, had failed to entrust the evidence collected by it to the CBI. He had also alleged that the Crime Branch had, instead, destroyed several valuable pieces of evidence.

The Special Court judge Sanal Kumar said the quantum of punishment for the two who have been found guilty will be pronounced on December 23.

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