Twists & turns

Print edition : January 02, 2009

The Abhaya case gets a fresh lease of life 16 years after the young nuns death with the arrest of two priests and a nun.

in Thiruvananthapuram

Sister Abhaya, who was found dead in the well of her hostel in March 1992.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

ON a summer day in March 1992, a 21-year-old nun, a college student, woke up before daybreak at a convent hostel and walked downstairs to the kitchen alone for some cold water from the refrigerator.

Thus began one of Keralas most intriguing crime mysteries, the death of Sister Abhaya, which is about to unravel itself, or so it seems, after 16 years.

It was still dark outside at the St. Pius X Convent Hostel in Kottayam when a few hostel employees found the refrigerator door ajar and the contents of a water bottle spilled on the floor. One of a pair of slippers was under the refrigerator; the other one lay outside, near the convent well. The door leading to the well was locked from outside and a nuns veil was stuck in between. Later in the day, Abhayas body was found inside the well.

The post-mortem report said there were two small lacerated wounds above the right ear on the back of Abhayas head and abrasions below the right shoulder blade and the right buttock. The direction of the wounds was described as upwards and inwards. There was no sign of molestation or rape, according to the report. The cause of death was stated as drowning (A case of cover-up?, Frontline, May 19, 1995).

What followed was a sensational saga of unsuccessful inquiries by various agencies, distorted at every stage by unseen hands with powerful political connections and marked by the destruction of evidence, the disappearance or death of suspects and witnesses, intense rivalry among investigating officers, a vicious trial by the media, and a nagging and critical scrutiny of the investigation by the courts.

On November 19, more than 16 years after Abhayas death, the first arrests were made. Those arrested, two Catholic priests and a nun, were remanded by the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam (Kochi), to the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This happened in the midst of a fresh and unusually fast-paced inquiry by yet another team of the CBI, launched in early November as per the directions of the Kerala High Court.

The charges against those who were arrested were not made public immediately. But while seeking their custody, the CBI told the court that Father Thomas Kottoor, Father Jose Poothrukayil and Sister Sephy were the accused Number One, Two and Three respectively in the case and that their interrogation was essential in order to obtain incriminating evidence about the involvement of others and to reconstruct the scene of the crime.

Joint Director of the CBI Ashok Kumar told a press conference in Kochi later that he could not reveal the nature of the fresh evidence that had led to the arrests because it was likely to obstruct the course of further investigations. Incidentally, in reply to a question, he also said that the officials of the local police who had first investigated the case and who had allegedly destroyed crucial evidence would have to be investigated if such evidence emerged. He also said that the CBI was trying to complete the investigation as quickly as possible in deference to the directions of the court.

Soon, in a surprising turn of events, on November 25, 71-year-old V.V. Augustine, a retired Assistant Sub-Inspector who had prepared the inquest report in the Abhaya case in 1992 and a key witness who had been 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. Local police said a suicide note blaming the CBI was found in his pocket.

Augustines death was one more grisly turn to the Abhaya case in which the effort of unseen forces, as the courts had come to describe the culprits, had all along been to portray what was a cold-blooded murder in popular perception (and as the CBI informed a court years after Abhayas death) as merely a suicide by a nun, the conclusion of the local police, which conducted the initial investigation.

Within a few weeks of the nuns death in the hostel and following appeals and an agitation by the Abhaya Case Action Council and her aged parents, the case was referred to the Crime Branch of the State Police. The Crime Branch too concluded, in January 1993, that Abhaya had committed suicide. The uproar that followed, with the Action Council approaching the High Court, led to the case being referred to the CBI.

However, in December 1993, as a result of the rivalry among officials of the CBI, the investigating officer, Deputy Superintendent of Police Varghese P. Thomas, submitted his resignation midway through the inquiry. He later called a press conference in Kochi to indicate that he was being forced by his superior officer to conclude that Abhaya had taken her own life, while, in fact, his inquiry 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 alleged that the Crime Branch had, instead, destroyed several valuable pieces of evidence.

Four different teams of the CBI inquired into the case subsequently on the orders of various courts. The first team sought a closure of the case in November 1996 because, it said, all the evidence had been destroyed. The second team admitted in July 1999 that Abhaya had indeed been murdered but it could not arrest anyone because the evidence had been destroyed. Despite the courts insisting that the earlier investigations had not been proper and the CBI should apply scientific methods of investigation, yet another inquiry team claimed in August 2005 that it could not proceed further in the murder case because of lack of evidence. The court was, however, adamant that the agency could not wriggle out of the inquiry claiming there was no evidence to prove its conclusion.

FR. Thomas Kottoor, Fr. Jose Poothrukayil and Sr. Sephy, who were arrested in connection with Sr. Abhaya's death.-H.VIBHU / AP

Thus it remained seemingly at a dead end until April 2007 when the case was brought back to the limelight by a newspaper, which published photocopies of what it alleged were tampered copies of the Chief Chemical Examiners report on the laboratory tests of specimens collected from Abhayas body. In particular, the report alleged that results of the tests on vaginal swabs and the vaginal smear had been tampered with.

But the officials who conducted the examination said that those were corrections carried out in the normal process of laboratory examinations and was not a case of the records being manipulated at all. Following the revived public attention in the case, in January 2008, while disposing of a petition filed by an Action Council member seeking a direction to the CBI to submit the results of the narco-analysis tests conducted on some of the suspects (including the two priests and the nun), the court indicated that the investigation was not progressing in a satisfactory manner. The court directed that the investigation be entrusted to honest police officers and ordered that it be transferred to the Kerala unit of the CBI. It also said that the Chief Judicial Magistrates court could give the necessary directions for the inquiry to the new team and that the CBI could approach the High Court if it faced any interference from any quarter. The High Court also decided to monitor directly the progress of the case from then on.

Even 16 years after Abhayas death, a kind of insolent public curiosity about the case has been kept alive by a string of unrelated factors. First among them, surely, was the determination of the Sister Abhaya Case Action Council, a motley group that came together in the wake of the nuns death to reiterate the popular belief that it was indeed a case of murder. (However, as the case dragged on endlessly, a few of its leaders became much discredited for their alleged use of the case itself as a self-serving platform. But they had, along with Abhayas parents, kept up the pressure on the investigators by continuing their crusade in courts and in the public arena.)

Another factor was the rather awkward contrast between the response of the Church authorities to the sudden and mysterious death of a young nun, one of their own, and their perceived eagerness to be satisfied with the suicide theory, to come out with all their might in support of the accused priests and nuns at every instance, and to brush aside casually the serious allegations that several men, including the accused priests, had been regular visitors to the St. Pius X Convent Hostel at unseemly hours.

Right from the day Abhayas body was discovered, the lukewarm response of the Church authorities had led to speculation in the town of Kottayam on the alleged activities involving residents of the hostel and certain powerful forces. It had also sharply divided the laity, with a number of believers then openly criticising the silence of their only Bishop, on the issue. For example, the Chairman of the Kottayam Municipal Council at the time of Abhayas death, P.C. Cherian Madukkani, had told Frontline in 1995: From the circumstances of the case, the people of Kottayam have no doubt that Abhaya was murdered. We believe that she must have seen something in the kitchen which no one was supposed to see. The place she was staying was a hostel for working women and students, in addition to nuns.

Yet another factor that had kept the case in the spotlight was the apparent role of some prominent politicians and political parties (in the events that followed Abhayas death) who were ever eager to serve the Church leaders, the custodians of their niche vote banks in central Kerala. Sister Abhaya belonged to the Knanaya Syro-Malabar Church that had its vote-tilting congregations in a number of key constituencies crucial to several Kerala Congress groups as well as their coalition partners in Kerala.

Interestingly, as the years passed, and even as the Abhaya case was being methodically weakened by the loss or destruction of evidence, it was also being increasingly burdened by assumptions, lies, inferences and expectations, the professional rivalry of investigators and agencies and the incessant pressure on those in charge of the case to prove one or the other point of view. And now, in December 2008, with the first arrests being made, a key witness dead and the court and the Church after it, the pressure is mounting on the CBI to prove, once and for all, its theory in the Abhaya case.

After the three accused were remanded to judicial custody on December 2, the CBI informed the court that on the day she died, Abhaya had been hit twice with an axe on the back of her head near the right ear because, it alleged, she had seen the accused in a compromising position. The investigators also told the court that after Abhaya collapsed from the blows she received, her body was taken out of the kitchen and dumped in the convent well.

In 16 years, it was not the first time such a theory about Abhayas death was being raised. But it was the first time that an investigating agency was presenting it before a court of law. The key to the mystery of Abhayas death will be whether this long-held theory will stand the test of evidence, or what remains of it after 16 years, in the court battles that are likely to follow.

Little wonder, then, that the Abhaya case has, in the years that it remained unsolved, also become the stuff of fiction. It has inspired a handful of movies, including a popular series eulogising the CBI and with a Malayalam superstar actor as its hero. Perhaps exactly for this reason, the day after Augustine died, two retired top police officers in Kerala, K.J. Joseph and T.V. Madhusoodanan, both former Directors-General of Police, came out openly in a prominent Malayalam newspaper advising the new investigators to be cautious as they moved ahead in search of the evidence that had seemingly escaped all the others.

It will be an unhappy end to such a baffling murder mystery if innocents are punished or culprits get away scot-free for want of evidence. Was Abhaya murdered or did she commit suicide? Whatever may be the final verdict, the question is likely to remain a blot on Keralas Catholic Church, the State Police and the CBI for a long time to come.

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