After a long wait of 28 years, the verdict on the mysterious death of sister Abhaya, a teenage nun in Kerala, was pronounced on Tuesday. A CBI court judge Sanal Kumar in Thiruvananthapuram convicted the accused – Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy – for charges of murdering the nun in 1992. The two have been found guilty under Sections 302 (Murder) and Section 449 (House-trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death) of the Indian Penal Code. The quantum of punishment will be decided on Thursday.
The two religious figures have been convicted despite the fact that several crucial witnesses in the case had turned hostile. In fact, witnesses turning hostile was the biggest challenge faced by the prosecution during the trial, which started only in August 2019.
It was in 1992 that Abhaya, a 19-year-old nun, was found dead in the well of Pious Xth Convent in Kottayam district of Kerala. According to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team's findings, Sister Abhaya was killed by two priests, Thomas Kottoor and Jose Poothrikkayil, and another nun in her convent, Sephy. However, Jose Poothrikkayil was later removed from the list of accused.
According to the CBI findings, Sr Abhaya found the priests and Sephy in a compromising position in the convent kitchen and they killed her fearing she would speak out about this. The CBI had taken over the case in 1993 after the Kerala Crime Branch closed it, claiming Sr Abhaya died by suicide. In the next few years, CBI submitted three reports, in which it once said that it was a case of suicide. In two other reports the CBI said that Abhaya was murdered but they did not have evidence to pin down the perpetrators.
Fifteen years after the CBI took over the case, the priests and the nun were arrested in 2008. When the trial began in August 2019, eight witnesses turned hostile.
The strongest evidence the investigators had was the statements given by witnesses over the mess they saw in the kitchen after Abhaya's body was found in the well. Abhaya's slippers, the opened fridge door, a water bottle, her veil and some other misplaced objects indicated a struggle in the kitchen, when the victim went to drink water early morning of March 27, 1992.
Another important witness was a man named Adakka Raju who had entered the convent that day to rob. He was a crucial witness who identified the accused. In his statement, prime witness Raju told the CBI that he saw two priests - Thomas M Kottoor (first accused) and Jose Poothrikkayil (second accused who was later discharged from the case) - climbing the stairway at the rear side of the convent. A senior advocate, who is associated with the case, told TNM that 'Adakka' Raju was a thief. "He had entered the convent on the day of the crime, a little after 4 am, to steal something when he saw the priests there. This, he admitted in court," the lawyer said.
"All the inmates of the convent had noticed this disturbance in the kitchen. If Abhaya killed herself her chappals should be near the well. They all saw her chappals in the kitchen, but none of them testified that in court," public prosecutor M Navas said.