What does justice mean for a teenaged nun killed 27 years ago in Kerala?

In the 27 years since Sister Abhaya was killed – her parents have died, crucial evidence was destroyed, and some key witnesses have passed away; others have turned hostile.
 What does justice mean for a teenaged nun killed 27 years ago in Kerala?
What does justice mean for a teenaged nun killed 27 years ago in Kerala?
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Justice delayed is justice denied. This is a common refrain that may even sound like empty rhetoric at times. After all, the system needs time to work, right? In Sister Abhaya’s case – the system has taken 27 years, and counting. And with every passing day, the possibility of justice, and even the meaning of the term, is bleak. 

Sister Abhaya was a 19-year-old nun residing at the Pius X convent in Kottayam, when she was found dead on the morning of March 27, 1992. Her body was found in a well within the convent compound, and at that time, the local police and Crime Branch called it a suicide. But a year later, the case was reopened; the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the probe – and this time, they called it murder. For 15 years after that, 13 batches of CBI officers came and went but nothing happened in the case. Finally, in 2008, 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 Stephy.

That was 2008. We’re now in 2019. For 11 long years, justice for Sister Abhaya has been standing in line, hoping she will get her turn. The trial in the 27 year old case finally started on Monday, August 26. On day one, the court discovered that two of the three witnesses summoned were not alive, while the third one turned hostile. On day two, once again the court was informed that another witness was already dead, while the fifth person called to the stands turned hostile.

A timeline of events

The CBI, in its reports, has 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 examination. On her way to the kitchen to drink some water, she found Father Thomas, Father Jose and Sister Stephy in an objectionable circumstance.

The three accused in the case.

Fearing exposure, the first accused Thomas M Kottoor allegedly strangulated the victim while Stephy (the third accused) attacked her with an axe. The three- including Father Jose- then threw her in a well while she was still alive – and Sister Abhaya died due to drowning. 

However, soon after her body was found, crucial evidence in the case – including the victim’s diary and her clothes at the time of her death – were tampered with. 

“It is like the recent Sriram Venkitaraman’s case, where no evidence was gathered during the initial few hours after the murder,” says Sreejan Balakrishnan, Times of India's Thiruvananthapuram bureau chief and a senior journalist who has been closely following the case for years. “Even Sister Abhaya’s autopsy report stated she died of drowning, which could be either done by force or by suicide,” he adds. 

KT Michael – the man who was in charge of the preliminary investigations in the case – is accused of destroying key evidence in the case in the aid of the accused. Michael was the man who closed the case in 1992, calling it a suicide. 

But a year later, in 1993, the case was reopened and taken up by the CBI, after activists including Jomon Puthenpurackal formed an action council demanding justice for Sister Abhaya. The crime branch investigation was called a sham, and the police were accused of trying to aide the killers of Sister Abhaya. The investigation was led by the then DySP Varghese P Thomas, who declared the case as one of murder.

But it wasn’t easy for Varghese. “Before I could find out who killed Abhaya, I was humiliated by the Crime Branch and my superiors tried to hush up matters,” Varghese told the media. As a result, he resigned from the CBI service in December 1993, seven years before his time to retire.

Varghese P Thomas

When the chargesheet in the case was filed in 2008, the CBI arrested the three accused, who then filed a discharge plea with the CBI Special Court in Thiruvananthapuram. While the discharge plea was dismissed, the accused have been on bail for a long time now.

In 2009, there were two crucial developments: firstly, the CBI drew up a list of 177 witnesses in the case. Secondly, a narco test was conducted on all three accused, where they confessed to their crime. 

However, by 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that narco analysis is not admissible as evidence. 

In January 2018, KT Michael was added as an accused in the case for destroying evidence. In August 2019, the trial in the case has finally started. 

In March 2018, the CBI court dismissed the discharge pleas filed by two of the accused – Thomas and Stephy. However, Jose Poothrikkayil was discharged from the case for lack of evidence. 

Since the time it took over the investigation, the CBI filed three reports to the court. The first report (November 29, 1996) wanted the closing of the investigation as untraced. The second report (July 12, 1999) said Sister Abhaya was murdered but the accused could not be traced. The third report (August 30, 2005) suggested that a local inspection must be conducted to analyse the various factual aspects involved in the case. All the reports were rejected by Abhaya’s father. 

Measuring 27 years in human cost

Sister Abhaya’s father, Thomas, who battled for justice for his daughter for over two decades, died of cardiac arrest on July 24, 2016. Her mother, Leelamma, too passed away – sometime after 2016. 

Sister Abhaya's parents

Sister Lisieux, the former Mother Superior of the convent, and a key witness in the case, is also dead. 

So is Witness Number 6, S Das, who was the watchman in the area when Sister Abhaya was killed. “He died on February 28, 2014. The court gave the summons (on Tuesday) because the CBI did not know he was dead,” Jomon Puthenpurackal said in his Facebook post. He is an activist who formed the Action Council in 1992 and was instrumental in reopening the investigation.

According to senior journalist Sreejan Balakrishnan, of the first 50 witnesses in the list of 177 that CBI has drawn up, at least seven are no longer alive. 

Alive, but hostile

Witness Number 50 in the case, Sister Anupama, retracted her statement to the CBI in court on Monday. 

In her initial statement, Sister Anupama, who lived in the same convent, had said she had seen Abhaya’s footwear and habit (headscarf) in the convent’s kitchen and even heard a loud sound from the well. At the special court, however, she said she did not see or hear anything on the night of the crime, and also alleged that the victim showed suicidal tendencies. The court then declared the witness as hostile. 

According to Jomon, Witness Number 6, Das, who is now dead, he saw Father Jose Poothrikkayil scaling the wall and entering the convent at odd hours a few days before, and on the day of the crime. 

This is what Sanju Mathew, Witness Number 4, who lived next to the convent, also told the CBI earlier. However, on Tuesday, he denied making the statement, making him the second witness to turn hostile.

With two witnesses turning hostile, there was palpable fear that the prime witness in the case, ‘Adakku’ Raju, would also change his stand. According to the CBI chargesheet, he had stated that he saw the priests entering the convent when he was reportedly fixing a lightning conductor.

What does justice even look like now?

And when Raju took to the stands on August 29, 2019, he once again revealed the deep rot in the police system that had actively engaged in a cover up.

Raju told the judge that when he was called in for questioning in 1992, the Crime Branch officials had asked him to admit to committing the crime, and that an amount of Rs 2 lakh will be sent to his family if he did so. 

A petty thief, he had entered the convent on the day of the crime, a little after 4 am, to steal something. This is when he saw the priests at the convent. 

“I was on the terrace for stealing copper components of the lighting conductor. This is when I saw two priests walking around and surveying the place. One was Father Thomas M Kottoor. I recognise him even now and I also identified him in 2008 during the CBI identification parade,” Raju told the court.

Though Raju described to the court what he saw at the convent, the prosecution may not be able to prove the crime just on the basis of this statement. “I am not aware of any case that has been proved solely based on statements by witnesses and without material evidence,” says Sreejan. 

With two witnesses already turning hostile, the public prosecutor in the case expressed his concern before the court over witnesses being influenced. “Considering this, the judge said if that was the situation, the case could be tried outside Kerala,” says the journalist.  

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