The 21-year-old nun was found dead in the well of a Kottayam convent on March 27, 1992.

A black and white photo of Sister Abhaya
news Sister Abhaya Case Monday, December 21, 2020 - 19:38

Kerala will see the verdict in one of its most infamous murder cases on Tuesday, December 22.  After 28 years, a special CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram will deliver its final judgement on the death of Sister Abhaya - a 21-year-old nun who was found dead in a convent well in March 1992.

As the murder case is finally drawing to a close, here’s an explainer on how and why it took almost 3 decades and several cries from activists in Kerala for the court to deliver justice to the young nun.

Who is Sister Abhaya and how did she die?

Abhaya was a 21-year-old who was living in the Pius X convent in Kottayam. On the morning of March 27, 1992, she was found drowned inside a well in the convent premises. The local police visited the crime scene, removed the deceased 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.

But Sr Abhaya’s death triggered outrage and several activists, most prominently a man named Jomon Puthenpurackal, accused the investigating officials of botching up the case. In 1993, the case was once again reopened and this time handed over to the CBI.

That was just the beginning of investigations that dragged on for 27 years. After the CBI lodged its FIR in the case in 1993, the agency investigated the young nun’s death for 15 years more. Thirteen batches of CBI officers probed her death. However, each of their first 3 reports submitted before the court stated that it was not possible to identify her killers as evidence had been destroyed. The court rejected all of these reports and ordered a re-investigation which finally ended in a chargesheet in 2008.

The CBI saga in the Sr Abhaya case

In 1996, 1999 and in 2005, the CBI submitted three final reports. The first one stated that it could not determine whether Sr Abhaya’s was a murder or a suicide. The second report confirmed that it was a murder based on a medical inspection on the body but said it could not identify who the perpetrators were. The third report said that there was no indication that anyone was involved in the nun’s death.

The court rejected all three reports and in September 2008, handed over investigations to the Kerala branch of the CBI. Finally, a chargesheet was filed – and it named two priests and a nun as accused in the murder of Sister Abhaya: Father Thomas M Kottoor, Father Jose Poothrikkayil, and Sister Sephy. The CBI arrested the three accused in November 2008.

What did the chargesheet say

The CBI, in its reports, said that on the day of the crime – March 27, 1992 – Sister Abhaya, who was doing a pre-degree course, woke up at 4 am to prepare for an exam. She was walking towards the kitchen to drink some water when she found Father Thomas, Father Jose and Sister Sephy in a compromising position.

Fearing that she would complain, Father Thomas allegedly strangled her in the kitchen while Sephy (the third accused) struck her with an axe. The three of them, including Father Jose - then threw her into a well while she was still alive - and Sister Abhaya died due to drowning.  A water bottle that had fallen, a veil found underneath the exit door which was found locked from outside and Sr Abhaya's slippers found at various places in the kitchen was all made part of evidence.

There were allegations that crucial evidence post the death - including Sister Abhaya’s diary and her clothes - were tampered with. KT Michael, the Crime Branch SP who was incharge of the initial investigations in the case and who closed the case as suicide back in 1992 was accused of destroying key evidence.

In 2009, the CBI named a list of 177 witnesses in the case, and a narco test was conducted on all the three accused where they confessed to their crime. However, this confession is no longer admissible in court as in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that narco analysis as non-admissible evidence.

Justice K Hema's bail plea judgment

In January 2009, Justice Hema granted bail to Sephy. In that scathing judgment however, the judge noted that the CBI's case was weak and the allegation that the local police officer had destroyed evidence was false. The judge said, "In the course of hearing of these petitions, what I felt was that the case was being argued not the basis of the contents of the case records, but on some surmises or conjuctures created by the media. But, such wild ideas have absolutely no connection with the contents of the case records and I am concerned only with the case diary."

The judge also added that the church and particularly the convent that Sr Abhaya lived in did not play any part in hushing the crime. 

Trial in court

In 2018, KT Michael was also added in the chargesheet as an accused. The same year, the trial court also dismissed charges against Jose Poothrikkayil, for lack of evidence.  In August 2019, the trial in the case finally began in a CBI court in Kerala.

Over these years, several of the 177 witnesses rounded up by the CBI are either dead or have turned hostile.

This includes Sister Abhaya’s father and mother who died in 2016. Sister Lisieux, the former Mother Superior of the convent, and a key witness in the case, is also dead. Witness Number 6, S Das, who was the watchman in the area when Sister Abhaya was killed.

Nine witnesses have also turned hostile in the case so far.

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