On the morning of Sr Abhaya’s death, Raju had broken into the convent compound to steal something when he saw the priests.

A picture of an old man speaking into microphones
news Sr Abhaya Murder Tuesday, December 22, 2020 - 15:35

Two roommates, two fellow nuns, one superior nun, two kitchen workers and one neighbour — These persons had some information about how 21-year-old Sister Abhaya landed dead in the well of their convent in Kerala’s Kottayam on March 27, 1992. Although their statements significantly helped the prosecution build a case, these eight witnesses turned hostile, changing their statements given to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the court. Though these witnesses turned hostile under pressure or by accepting bribes- there were many witnesses who never changed their accounts. In fact, in the face of mounting pressure and threats, a few unlikely — and crucial — witnesses stood by their statement in the CBI special court in Thiruvananthapuram, as the trial in the 27-year-old case began in August 2019. 

Adakka Raju, a thief; Thresiamma, a former professor of Kottayam’s BCM College for Women (where Sister Abhaya was a student); Dr Lalithambika, head of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology in Alappuzha Medical College; and Dr P Rema, head of forensic medicine, Alappuzha Medical College — are a few of them. The statements from these witnesses, according to CBI prosecutor M Navas, were strong enough to prove the murder case and convict the two accused, Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy.

Adakka Raju, a thief and prime witness 

One person whose statement was perhaps the most crucial was Adakka Raju —  a petty thief who stole areca nuts and is the prime witness in the murder of Abhaya. In his statement to the CBI, who took up the probe in 1993 (after the Crime Branch concluded it was a case of suicide), Raju said that he had seen Fr Thomas M Kottoor and Jose Poothrikkayil climbing the stairway at the rear side of the convent in the wee hours of the day the crime was committed. On the morning of Sr Abhaya’s death, Raju had broken into the convent compound to steal something when he saw the priests. 

When the trial began in August 2019, on the third day, Raju told the court that the Crime Branch had pressured him to ‘confess to the crime that he never committed’. According to his statement during the trial, the Crime Branch officials had asked him to admit to committing the murder and that his family would receive Rs 2 lakh if he made the admission. 

However, through the year-long trial, Raju stuck to his stance, stating in court what he had told the CBI sleuths. Immediately after the judgment was pronounced, an elated Raju told the media that he was happy his child could get justice and he would get drunk in joy.

Thresiamma, Sr Abhaya’s teacher

Sister Abhaya was a second-year pre-degree student at BCM College for Women in Kottayam. The convict, Father Thomas Kottoor, was Sister Abhaya’s teacher, who taught psychology at the college. Father Jose Poothrikkayil, a priest who was initially accused in the case but later discharged due to lack of evidence, was also a teacher in the Malayalam department of the college. However, according to their former colleague and Malayalam professor Thresiamma, the two men were known for ‘predatory behaviour’ which made their female students uncomfortable. Father Thomas Kottoor used to stare at their feet intently, Thresiamma, who was Sister Abhaya’s teacher, told the court.

During the trial in the court, the former professor said that she saw an injury mark above the upper lip and near the nose of Sister Abhaya when she saw the dead body. She also stated that Fr Jose Poothrikkayil "behaved as if he was the caretaker of the convent” after her death. 

Fr Thomas Kottoor was reportedly then Bishop Kuriakose Kunnassery's private secretary, which, according to Thresiamma, worked in the convict's favour, as the bishop (passed away later) had given him all assistance. 

According to Thresiamma, she, like other witnesses, faced threats against testifying in the court. “Some people with considerable clout threatened the witnesses to destroy their family. But they knew I would not retract my statements. Why should I fear? That is why I told the court the truth,” she told the media last year. 

Watch: Thresiamma speak to media after testifying in court 

 

Dr Lalithambika and Dr Rema 

Dr Lalithambika Karunakaran (witness number 29) and Dr P Rema (witness number 19) were part of the two-member medical team that examined the then defendant, Sister Sephy, in 2008. In their findings, the medical team stated that Sr Sephy had undergone hymenoplasty, a procedure to repair the hymen. As a result, the two doctors told the court that, "There was no necessity for a nun, who is a virgin, to undergo hymenoplasty/surgical interference. The only reason for such corrective surgery is for concealing evidence of rupture of her hymen due to frequent vaginal sexual intercourse." These findings and others were contentious even when they were deposed in court and were called 'crude and ignorant'.  

However, the findings by the medical team assumed significance as the CBI, in its chargesheet, had stated that Sr Abhaya had found Fr Thomas Kottoor, Fr Jose Poothrikkayil and Sr Sephy in a compromising position near the kitchen when the young victim went to drink some water. They killed Sr Abhaya, fearing she would expose them. 

(With inputs from Sreedevi Jayarajan)

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