Former Kerala High Court judge Kemal Pasha says Abhaya can never get justice because the church she believed in fought for her murderers, and not for her.

Sister Abhaya against a red background
news Sr Abhaya murder case Wednesday, December 23, 2020 - 14:56

A 21-year-old nun was murdered in cold blood to keep a secret safe. The nun accidentally witnessed two priests and a nun indulging in a sexual act in the convent where she was residing. Sister Abhaya was later found dead in the well of the same convent, St Pious XI in Kerala’s Kottayam district, in March 1992. With the Crime Branch declaring it a case of death by suicide, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arresting the accused only after 15 years and crucial witnesses turning hostile during the trial that started only in 2019, justice continued to evade Sister Abhaya for over 28 years. Finally, on December 22, 2020, a CBI court pronounced the accused — Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy — guilty of murdering the young nun. However, can this verdict in the Sr Abhaya murder case —  after 28 years — be considered as justice served?

The young nun's parents, who fought all through their life to find out the truth about the death of their daughter, died years before they got some relief from the court of law. But, according to Kemal Pasha, former Kerala High Court judge, Abhaya can never get justice, not because of delay by the judiciary but because the church she believed in, fought for her murderers, and not for her.

After the trial in Sr Abhaya case was completed on December 18 this year, a message, claiming to be from the Superior General of a nunnery, was circulating on social media platforms. In the post, the mother superior asks other sisters to chant a particular prayer 13 times to get a verdict 'in their favour'. The prayer was not for the justice of Abhaya.

That said, justice Kemal Pasha also noted that the case suffered a setback due to the ineffective investigation in the initial stage. “The first arrest was made only 15 years after her death. Initially, the police and the Crime Branch played well to make it a suicide. KT Michael, the investigative officer, destroyed all crucial evidence and closed the case, calling it death by suicide," Kemal Pasha told TNM.

Later, when the CBI took over the case in 1993, it was the then Deputy Superintendent of Police Varghese P Thomas who first filed the report, stating it was a case of homicide. "He had to go through immense pressure. The Crime Branch as well as his senior officers pressured him to change his findings, but he did not. Later, they planned to transfer him to a different state. That is how he took voluntary retirement, though he had seven more years of service," Kemal Pasha said. 

According to the former Kerala High Court judge, justice was, in a sense, served to Varghese, not to Abhaya. Explaining this, he said, "We cannot say Abhaya or her parents got justice; Varghese got. He was proven right, that she was murdered. Abhaya can never get justice because her church fought for her murderers, not for her.”

How the judiciary helped

Incidentally, the CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram, too, played a crucial role in this case. It did not allow the CBI to close the case even after they approached the court with three varying reports in the case each time. In the first report, filed on November 29, 1996, the CBI suggested closing the case as ‘untraced’. In the second report (July 12, 1999), it said Sister Abhaya was murdered, but the accused could not be found. In the third report on August 30, 2005, the investigation agency suggested a local inspection to assesses the factual aspects in the case.

"But the court did not allow them to close the case; they asked the CBI to continue the investigation. That is how, in 2008, the three accused were arrested," Kemal Pasha said. Although Father Jose Poothrikkayil was named as an accused, he was later discharged from the case. “For this very reason, the 16-year delay cannot be attributed to the judiciary. If the court had closed the case then, justice would not have been delivered now," he added.

Advocate J Sandhya, a women’s rights activist based in Thiruvananthapuram, said on the other hand, that Sr Abhaya case shows how a judicial system shouldn't be. The accused appealing at higher courts was cited as a reason for the delay in the case after 2008. "Appeals at higher courts are their rights, but more importantly, it is about keeping a time frame and finishing the case within that time. Unending appeals to delay the case cannot be allowed," she pointed out.

"This case is also a message that how much ever the case is delayed, no one can escape from the crime they committed," she said.

How the church failed Sr Abhaya

Sister Jesme, a writer and retired college principal at St Mary's College in Thrissur, had left the Congregation of the Mother Carmelite 12 years ago. She, too, agreed that it was the church that failed Sr Abhaya.

"The church will not tolerate any accusations against them. They don't support the victim. We have seen that note seeking prayer from the superior general. They never worried about justice for Abhaya," Sr Jesme said.

"I have heard that a person who lived near the convent helped clear all the evidence that morning after Sr Abhaya’s body was found in the well. The convent intentionally delayed in informing the police. They were waiting to make sure that Sr Abhaya was dead, so that nobody could get her final statement," Jesme alleged.

She also alleged that the then Union government (under PV Narasimha Rao) had helped the church in protecting the accused. “There were lapses from the part of the investigators as well as the judiciary. But the court was judicious to tell the CBI not to close the case," she added.

Sr Jesme said that the church considered the accused as 'saints'. "They were given a warm welcome when they were out on bail in 2008 They distributed sweets when they were out. Again and again, Abhaya was failed there," Jesme said.

A petty thief, Adakka Raju, stood by his statement till the end while all the other sisters turned hostile. So who is the real Christian here?" she asked, accusing them of being “slaves” who merely follow the instructions given by officials from the top.

"I advocate solitary asceticism rather than being part of a community because these systems are today functioning like an underworld gang," she said.

Also Read: Sister Abhaya murder: Life imprisonment for Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy

Explainer: What is the Sister Abhaya case and why it took 28 years for a verdict


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