Sister Abhaya
Sister Abhaya Image Credit: Supplied

Thiruvananthapuram: Nearly three decades after a Catholic nun, Sister Abhaya, was found dead in the well of a convent in the south Indian state of Kerala, a Central Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday found two of the prime accused in the case guilty.

The probe, known as the Sister Abhaya murder case, has seen several ups and down over the past 28 years. On Tuesday, the CBI Court found two accused, Syro Malabar Catholic Church priest Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, a resident of the convent when the incident took place, guilty of murder in the case.

Delivering the verdict, judge K. Sanalkumar reserved the sentencing on the quantum of punishment for Wednesday.

After the verdict, Fr Kottoor said: “The God is my court and I am innocent. Let the will of the God prevail.” Asked if he would appeal against his conviction, he said: “I am not the one to decide.”

Sister Sephy, however, was seen praying when the verdict came. She clutched her cross but did not say a word.

After their check-ups, both were taken to different jails in the capital city.

What is the case?

Sr Abhaya, a Syro Malabar Catholic Church nun, was found dead in the well of St Pius X Convent in Kottayam, Kerala, on March 27, 1992. She was 18. A resident in the convent, Sr Abhaya was pursuing a pre-degree course in a church-run college.

Initially, both the Crime Branch and the CBI dismissed the death as suicide. However, public activist Joemon Puthenpurackal formed an Action Council and pursued the case.

The turnaround in the case happened after Puthenpurackal managed to get the case reopened, following which the 13th batch of CBI officials cracked the case. In 2008, Fr Kottoor, Fr Jose Puthurukkayil and Sr Sephy were arrested by the Kerala Crime Branch.

Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, Sister abhaya Kerala murder
Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, who were pronounced guilty by a CBI Court in the murder of Sister Abhaya in 1992, being taken to the prison after COVID-19 test in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. Image Credit: ANI

Fr Puthurukkayil was a former Malayalam professor at the Kottayam college where Abhaya studied; Fr Kottoor, the Diocesan chancellor of the Catholic Church at Kottayam, and Sr Sephy, a resident of the convent when the incident took place.

On January 1, 2009, all three accused managed to get bail.

What do the activists say?

According to probe agencies’ case diary and activists, Sr Abhaya was murdered after she had accidentally intruded upon Sr Sephy and the two other priests, Fr Kottoor, Fr Puthurukkayil, in a “compromising position”.

It was further alleged that Sr Sephy panicked and, on the spur of the moment, hit Abhaya with an axe meant for chopping firewood. After that, the three accused allegedly dumped Sr Abhaya’s body into the well.

What did the probe agency say?

According to the probe agency, on the day of the crime, Sr Abhaya had woken up at 4am to study for her exams, and was last known to have gone to the kitchen.

“The refrigerator door was left ajar, water from a bottle was spilled on the floor and a single slipper sat under the fridge – its pair was found beside the convent hostel’s well. And her body was found in the convent hostel’s well in the early hours of the same day,” the probe agency had found.

Even if I die today, I am happy. I have got justice for Abhaya

- Joemon Puthenpurackal, who led the fight for justice for 28 years

The local police visited the crime scene, removed Sr Abhaya’s body and investigated the case. Subsequently the local police and the Kerala Crime Branch who took over the case closed it as a case of suicide.

However, an action council seeking justice for Sr Abhaya was formed by a social activist Joemon Puthenpurackal demanding prosecution of those responsible for the murder of Sr Abhaya.

Why did the case take nearly three decades?

After the Kerala Police and Crime Branch ruled out the murder, lobbying from activists forced the Kerala government to bring in the premier investigative agency CBI in 1993 to probe the case.

The CBI took over the case from the local police and filed three closure reports at different points of time.

In 1996, the CBI filed a final report with inconclusive findings as to whether the death of Sr Abhaya was suicidal or homicidal. That report was not accepted by the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Kerala.

After further investigation by another team, a second final report was filed in 1999, which concluded that the death was homicidal but could not identify the perpetrators. That report was also not accepted by the Court.

In 2005, yet another report was filed by the CBI after investigation by another team, which ruled out involvement of other persons in Sr Abhaya’s death.

Till November 2008, 16 years after the death, no arrests were made.

When did the first arrests take place?

However, on November 19, 2008, Fr Kottoor, Fr Puthurukkayil and Sr Sephy - were arrested by the Crime Branch.

On July 17, 2009, the three were charged with murder, defamation and destruction of evidence. However, in 2018, Fr Puthurukkayil was discharged from the case by the CBI Court, saying the prosecution had failed to bring sufficient evidence to proceed against him.

Finally, in October 2020, the Kerala 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 considering the pandemic situation.

Though 49 witnesses appeared for the hearing, 9 crucial witnesses turned hostile in the case. In the beginning, there were 133 witnesses from the prosecution side. As the case continued for 28 years, many died.

Petty thief turns crucial witness

However, Raju K alias Adakka Raju, a small-time thief, who was present on the convent premises when the incident took place, became the crucial witness.

He told the CBI that he saw two priests and a nun at the convent under mysterious circumstances.

On Monday, he 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.”

After the verdict on Tuesday, Raju said: “That child has got justice. I too have daughters. I was tortured and offered money. But I didn’t budge.”

‘Justice for Abhaya’

Joemon Puthenpurackal, who led the fight for justice for the last 28 years, told the media: “God came as Adakka Raju. Even if I die today, I am happy. I have got justice for Abhaya.”

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 died sometime after 2016.

- Rejimon Kuttappan is a journalist based in Kerala