Sister Abhaya was a member of St. Joseph’s Congregation under the Syro – Malabar Catholic Arch eparchy of Kottayam, Kerala. She was a 21 years Old Catholic sister, who was found dead in a well of her hostel in Kottayam on the day of 27 March 1992. The Local police of the city and crime branch of the state police said it was a case of suicide. Later, The Crime Branch took up the investigation and claimed Psychological illness, a reason of death. However, a year later of the incident , the CBI (central beuro of investigation) took over the case in hands when Sister Banicasia (nun), Mother Superior, and 67 other nuns from the Kottayam’s Knanaya Catholic Church that sister Abhaya was part of, wrote a letter to then chief minister K. Karunakaran claiming the probe wasn’t conducted properly.
At the time of Abhaya death, she had been a pre-degree student in a college run by the Kottayam knanaya Catholic Church, where Father Kottur, who was also the secretary to the Bishop, taught psychology subject in the college. Abhaya had been an inmate of Pious Xth Convent Hostel, which had 123 inmates in it , including 20 nuns (sister), in 1992 when the incident took place. Sr Sephy had stayed in the same hostel and he was its de facto in-charge.
After 28 Years, The court has sentenced Father Thomas Kottur and Sister Sephy in the Sister Abhaya murder case. Thomas Kottur has been sentenced to dual life imprisonment and also a fine of Rs 6.5 lakh and nun Sephy with life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 5 lakh.
Sister Abhaya Murder Case
A result of head trauma and drowning caused Sister Abhaya to die. Two nail mark cuts on either side of her neck, lacerations on her neck and an injury to the back of her head were discovered by the inspection of Abhaya’s body. Based on evidence from two medical professionals, the judge found that the injury was caused prior to her death. The Court decided that she was killed after observing Father Thomas Kottur, Sister Sephy and probably the second defendant in a compromise position. Having observed this, Justice Sanilkumar further noted that she was hit on the head with a ‘hand axe’ (that caused the head injury) and thrown into a well to cover up the cause of her death. As was claimed by the defence, there was no risk of Sister Abhaya committing suicide. In the days and weeks prior to her death, witnesses questioned by the Court, who communicated with Abhaya, found her to be optimistic and willing to pursue her studies.
It is noteworthy that the Court also advertised the testimony of two other prisoners of the convent of Sister Abhaya, who were ardent proponents of the theory of suicide. They said that, on the date of her death, they had made arrangements with Sister Abhaya for a group study session in the morning. A person intent on ending her life, and finishing it in the near future, would not worry about her academic prospects, would not deny herself sleep in order to enhance her examination results, and would not commit herself passionately to studying, much less engage herself with her fellow students in combined research. To blow the suicide theory sky high, this single reality is sufficient.
Circumstances which led CBI to convict father and sister
Reaching the conclusion that Abhaya was a “wise, pious, truthful, easy, perseverant and intellectually rigorous girl, meticulous in all dimensions, leading an altruistic life” the Court noted that it was “absolutely impossible for her to have ended her life on her own as depicted by the defence”
The Court noticed that during the night of the death of Sister Abhaya, Sister Sephy was alone, as her roommate had gone to a retreat centre. Unusual noises happened both at night and in the morning in the kitchen, which the court deduced from the testimony of other prisoners in the convent, who later became aggressive. A crucial result was that to cover up the fact that she had engaged in sexual activity, Sister Sephy had undergone a gynaecological operation. The Court noted that the operation was carried out “on the eve” of the CBI’s arrest of her.
Statement from Father Thomas Kottur
Crucially, the Court made mention of Father Kottur's comment to one of the witnesses, Kalarcode Venugopalan, who had contacted Kottur after he discovered that it might be appropriate for Kottur to undergo a narcoanalysis. He admitted to Venugopal emotionally that he was not made of iron and stone, but he was a human being who had lived as a husband and wife with Sister Sephy at one point… and why was he being crucified? The defence was trying to refute the testimony of the witness. The Court held that the conduct of the defendant, his actions during his testimony, as well as the fact that he did not deviate from the essential facts of his testimony, were proof of his credibility.
The Court stated that the convent prisoners had suddenly become violent masse ‘without rhyme or explanation,’ facts found to have been lacking, and that the cook of the convent, Achamma, had also brought a case before the Supreme Court challenging the legal validity of the study of drugs. “Arguably India’s greatest living lawyer” possibly India’s greatest living lawyer. She conceded that the convent had supported her case and that she was not sure of its nitty-gritty, the judgement said. According to the Court, this showed that “a systematic, organised effort was exercised sub Rosa by the powers to subvert and prevent the prosecution case from reaching its logical conclusion.”
The officers investigating the case, Deputy Superintendent of Police K Samuel and then Superintendent of Police KT Michael, whose ‘strange involvement’ in the case led to the destruction of evidence, the collection of evidence and the influence of witnesses, and the torture of Adacku Raju, were also strongly referred to by Judge Sanilkumar. The Court issued a severe warning against such intervention in the future, requiring a copy of its judgement to be served on the head of the State Police. On these grounds, as well as an in-depth review of other proven evidence, the Court closed the contested case.
Sequence of events
· In April 1992, Crime Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department took up the case and declared death as a suicide.
· In April 1995, Forensic Medical Experts, Dr S K Pathak, Dr Mahesh Verma and Dr S R Singh took up the investigation and concluded that homicide could not be ruled out.
· On 19 November 2008, Thomas Kottur, Jose Puthurukkayil and a nun sister Sephy were arrested by Crime Branch.
· All these three granted bail in January 2009.
· On July 2009, three were charged with Murder, Defamation and Destruction of Evidence.
· After 28 years, on 22 December 2020, CBI court found Fr. Kottur and sister Sephy to be guilty of the murder of Sister Abhaya.
· They were sentenced life imprisonment on 23 December 2020.
The work and the role of the investigation team or the CBI team: It took 28 years for the court as well as the CBI team to find out the main reason or the main culprit of this case. It was years of failure of the court and the CBI team for delivering justice to Abhaya. It is the simple case of the loopholes in the investigation team and the court.
Sister Abhaya Murder Case is a perfect example of Quote "justice delayed is justice denied". Though, the court after giving the judgement on this case called it as the justice for sister Abhaya so, is this justice for sister Abhaya which took 28 years?
Author : Kiran Israni
2nd year Student of BACL, Nagpur
Content Writer at Legaleagle Law Forum