Twenty eight years after Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in a convent in Kottayam, a Special CBI Court has found Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder. K.S. Sudhi and Hiran Unnikrishan report on the twists and turns in the case and the many attempts to derail the investigation
Seated between two plainclothesmen, Father Thomas Kottoor, a 71-year-old Catholic priest, looked out of the window of the police vehicle. His eyes were fixed on something distant. “I have not committed any crime. God has a plan and things will work accordingly,” he muttered while adjusting his face mask as television journalists jostled for sound bites.
Flanked by women officers in another vehicle was Sister Sephy, 57, who was trying to control her tears.
Editorial | Murder in the convent: On Sister Abhaya case
As the vehicles left the premises of the Special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Court in Thiruvananthapuram, it was curtains down, at least for now, on a sensational case that, paraphrasing Judge K. Sanilkumar’s introduction to the judgment, stood still as judges moved, for 28 years. On December 23, 2020, Judge Sanilkumar found Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder and handed them a sentence of imprisonment for life besides a fine of ₹5 lakh each. Father Kottoor was also found guilty of house trespass.
The story began on March 27, 1992, when the body of a novitiate was found in the well of St Pius X Convent Hostel in Kottayam in central Kerala. The hostel and the nunnery were both managed by the Knanaya Catholic Church, an affluent and influential Christian denomination with deep roots in the State. Fire brigade officials soon fished out the body of Sister Abhaya, 21, an inmate of the hostel. A pair of slippers belonging to her was found on the ground floor of the hostel near the kitchen. Her head cover remained trapped in the outer door. A hand axe was lying in a corner.
The State Crime Branch, which took over the investigation from the local police 17 days after the incident, was quick to conclude that this was a case of suicide by an emotionally troubled novitiate. The CBI, which was later handed the case, concluded that it was a case of homicide, not suicide. However, unable to prove who murdered Sister Abhaya, the agency tried to close the case. Given that this was a case involving a priest, nun, novice, and a murder, and it coursed through countless twists and turns over nearly three decades, the verdict by the Special CBI Court came as a moral victory for those who remained steadfast in the pursuit of justice.
Sister Abhaya case | Curtains down on a 28-year-old case
A shoddy investigation
Sister Abhaya, born Beena Thomas, had taken holy orders in May, 1990, and was pursuing a pre-degree course at the BCM College in Kottayam. Her father, Thomas A. Mathai, was the first to dismiss the suicide theory as he firmly believed that his daughter had no reason to take the extreme step. On the eve of her death, Sister Abhaya, along with other inmates of the hostel, had gone for a Bible Convention and was cheerful. She had asked her room-mate to wake her up the next morning so that she could prepare for her exams.
The CBI prosecution case was that Sister Abhaya had gone downstairs to the kitchen to fetch drinking water early morning on March 27 when she accidentally caught Father Kottoor, who had sneaked into the hostel, being intimate with Sister Sephy, the sole occupant of the ground floor room that day. To cover up the wrongdoing, they attacked her with a blunt weapon and flung her into the well.
Days after the death, people in the locality formed an Action Council seeking justice, with Jomon Puthenpurackal, also a member of the Knanaya Church, as the convener. While the Action Council comprised political leaders such as Ramesh Chennithala, T.K. Ramakrishnan and Uzhavoor Vijayan, it was Puthenpurackal, 52 now, who stayed the course, doggedly pursuing justice despite personal setbacks. After the Crime Branch closed the case as suicide, it was largely due to his efforts that the court handed over the case to the CBI.
But the premier investigation agency, which took over the case in March 1993, was set to receive a major snub from the judiciary as the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, refused to accept its closure reports and ordered reinvestigation thrice between 1996 and 2005. It took the CBI 15 years to arrest the accused and another 12 years to secure conviction in what should have been an open and shut case, say legal experts.
There were reasons to suspect that attempts were made from the first day to derail the investigation. The Mother Superior of the convent, Sister Lessieux, who called the fire brigade, apparently told them that Sister Abhaya had fallen into the well while operating the pump. V.V. Augustine, additional sub-inspector who prepared the First Information Report, allegedly destroyed the inquest report. He was arraigned as an accused by the CBI. Augustine died by suicide in November 2008, soon after the first arrests were made in the case. Sister Lessieux’s death also dealt a blow to the investigation.
Material evidence collected from the scene had already been destroyed when the CBI took over the case. Crime Branch Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) K. Samuel and Superintendent of Police K.T. Michael were involved in the destruction of evidence, asserted the court while pronouncing the judgment. To its credit, the CBI had made Samuel an accused, but he died, and Michael was exculpated by a court.
Several early investigating officials including Samuel, shows the judgment, were also involved in fabricating cases against one of the key witnesses, Raju aka Adacka Raju, a petty thief whose evidence proved valuable in the case.
Sister Abhaya case | Law catches up with probe officer
The second accused in the CBI case was Father Jose Poothrikkayil, who, like Father Kottoor, was teaching at the BCM College where Sister Abhaya was a student. He was also manager of the Catholic Mission Press, while Father Kottoor, besides teaching psychology, was also secretary to the then Bishop. Father Poothrikkayil was discharged from the case even before the trial began.
“Shoddy investigation and interminable delays in the judicial system meant that the case needed constant following-up. It is a classic case of delay in justice becoming denial of justice. But I’m determined to pursue it to its logical end,” says Puthenpurackal, whose interventions kept the case alive in the public imagination. He says the Church succeeded in turning his family against him, but that only strengthened his resolve. Among those who tried to scuttle the case, he alleges, was a former Supreme Court judge with a stake in the case.
Sister Abhaya case | CBI court acquits Fr. Poothrikkayil
No suicide, this
The CBI probe into the case had a stormy beginning with the investigating officer, DySP Varghese P. Thomas putting in his papers nearly 10 years before superannuation and subsequently accusing his superior of forcing him to parrot the suicide theory.
An oblique head injury sustained by Sister Abhaya was what caught his attention, first. “It was unusual. By the time the CBI took over the case, most of the documentary evidence including Sister Abhaya’s personal diary had been destroyed,” Thomas recalls.
At first, he also thought of it as a case of suicide, maybe out of depression, but circumstantial evidence and witness statements alerted him to look for something sinister behind the death. As he dug deeper, he felt that Sister Abhaya had been hit on the head with a blunt object after which the body was dumped into the well – something that the judgment under discussion came to infer based on the post-mortem report and statements made by two doctors: an expert and the one who performed the post-mortem.
That the door to the kitchen had been latched from the outside on the morning of the occurrence also raised Thomas’s suspicion. “The statements of the convent inmates too backed the inference of homicide, although a majority of the witnesses turned hostile later,” he says.
When the CBI approached the court saying it was at a loss to conclude if it was homicide or suicide and therefore the case be closed, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, turned it down.
“All the arguments,” says K.K. Utharan, who was then Chief Judicial Magistrate, “to prove that the nun died by suicide were indefensible ones.”
An expert doctor produced by the CBI as its witness deposed that the victim was under severe mental trauma after failing in her college exams and had a history of mental illness. He also submitted that women might develop suicidal tendencies during their menstrual period.
“After going through the case diary, I was convinced that there was enough substance in the case. Moreover, all the contentions of the CBI to buttress the suicide theory were inadmissible. Therefore, I rejected the report and ordered a re-probe,” Utharan says.
Interestingly, in its second final report, the CBI found out that it was homicide, but pleaded helplessness in identifying the culprits, which invited the wrath of the court. Again, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Ernakulam ordered a reinvestigation.
Sister Abhaya case | Crime Branch destroyed evidence: CBI
Later, the Kochi unit of the CBI took over the case from the Delhi unit and filed one more report, in 2005, reiterating the request to close the case as an ‘untraced’ one, which was once again rejected by the Chief Judicial Magistrate.
Sister Sephy is taken to jail after she was pronounced guilty in the 1992 Sister Abhaya murder case. Photo: Special Arrangement
“The reasons put forth by the CBI were unconvincing and unacceptable,” says P.D. Sarangadharan, one of the three Chief Judicial Magistrates to turn down requests for closure of the case. “It was not a perfect crime which would leave the investigators clueless. This was a murder that took place in a convent, a walled property, where access was restricted. Hence, the possibility of some unknown person or an outsider committing the crime was non-existent. The details of those who could enter the compound and the inmates of the hostel could be easily ascertained and the culprits identified,” he explains.
Moving at snail’s pace
The suicide theory of the CBI had many holes in it. It was hard to believe that a young girl, who had asked to be woken up to prepare for an exam and went down to fetch water from a fridge, would suddenly throw herself into the well and end her life, says Sarangadharan, who retired as a District Judge.
After the incident and investigations, several nuns were transferred out of the convent. Some were even despatched abroad. A few nuns were posted in places that were inaccessible to the investigators. Evidence was also destroyed. The proactive role of a Crime Branch official in the investigation and the assurances he reportedly gave the nuns of the congregation to take proper care of the investigation were sufficient enough to raise doubts about the conclusions arrived at, Sarangadharan says.
Sister Abhaya case | She was not sexually assaulted: forensic experts
“It could be found from the documents that the nun was alive close to 5 a.m. I had a strong feeling that the culprits could be identified and brought to book by interrogating the nuns and the other inmates of the hostel,” recounts Sarangadharan.
V. Jayakumar, journalist with the Kerala Kaumudi daily, who was among the first to be permitted to the scene on that day, clearly remembers that initially they were told that a nun had ended her life by jumping into a well. Once inside the compound after a brief argument with the police, he saw “clear signs of a physical fight at the spot”. However, the Branch SP, Michael, kept saying how the novice suffering from depression had ended her life.
Despite allegations about the manipulation of FIR and other evidence, a section of the local media, which was regarded as pro-Church, warmed up to the theory of suicide, while others looked for unknown sides and attempted to piece together the puzzle, he says.
“The prevailing political situation was also favourable to the Church. M.M. Jacob was Union Minister in the Narasimha Rao government while K. Karunakaran and K.M. Mani, who were powerful, were leading the State government. The attempts to scuttle the probe were so explicit that even a section within the Church raised their voice against it,” notes Jayakumar.
Sister Abhaya case | Verdict brings relief to 2 chemical analysts
In 2007, Father Kottoor, Father Poothrikkayil and Sister Sephy were subjected to a narcoanalysis test. Their arrests were recorded by a CBI team led by DySP Nandakumar Nair in November 2008. Amidst this cropped up allegations that the narcoanalysis CDs had been tampered with. The High Court asked the CBI to submit the result of the narcoanalysis in a sealed cover. In 2019, as the trial of the case was progressing in Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala High Court ruled that narcoanalysis would not be admissible as evidence in the case.
As the case moved at a snail’s pace, Sister Abhaya’s parents, who had actively pursued it, died, and her brother got a job in West Asia. The trial began in 2019 and as it entered the final stage, a defence counsel passed away.
What the judgment says
The 229-page judgment, pronounced after wading through a maze of evidence, material and circumstantial, on December 23, mentions Sister Abhaya as a “pious, smart and punctilious girl, meticulous in all aspects, leading an altruistic life and that it was impossible for her to have ended her life on her own…”
The court was satisfied that it was a case of sex and murder and that Sister Abhaya was killed for chancing upon the amorous liaison of Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy. The position and nature of head injury on her body lent credence to the argument that she was subjected to assault. A majority of the hostel inmates turned hostile, while the court relied on Raju’s evidence to establish the presence of Father Kottoor in the convent that night.
“PW3 [Raju] may have been a thief but he was and is an honest man, a simple person without the need to dissemble, a human being who became a professional thief by the force of circumstances, but a speaker of truth nonetheless,” the court observed, analysing his depositions at great length.
Raju had been detained and tortured by the Crime Branch for 58 days to extract a confession that he had murdered Sister Abhaya and when he did not budge, lucrative offers were made. “I still live in a two-cent property, but I am happy with my family,” he says, turning down offers of support pouring in from all around now.
Sister Abhaya case | My child has got justice, says witness Raju
The court evaluated his depositions and demeanour and was convinced that he had gone to the convent to steal copper plates from the lightning arrester that night when in the early hours, he spotted Father Kottoor and another man with a torch on the terrace.
While the defence tried to paint Raju as a witness planted by the CBI, the unschooled man demonstrated strength of character and was unmoved. “I stood for Sister Abhaya like a father would for his child and I am happy that my child has finally got justice,” says Raju.
According to the court, Father Kottoor failed to “give a proper explanation for his presence in the Convent during the wee hours.” The location of the murder, observed the judge, “is exceedingly significant. It is a Convent, a place from which male presence is completely and unequivocally banned. The murder is that of a nun, a Bride of Christ.” The court also took serious note of Father Kottoor’s extra-judicial confession said to have been made to a public interest litigant that being human he was also prone to go wrong.
A medical examination of Sister Sephy suggested she underwent hymenoplasty “almost on the eve of her arrest by the CBI” to create the impression of being a virgin. The court thought it was significant to also take into account her past sexual experience gleaned from the medical examination.
Dwelling on the attempts to subvert the case, the court said that while the witnesses connected to the congregation turned hostile en masse, it was “fascinatingly bizzare” that Achamma, a poorly paid cook at the hostel, approached the Supreme Court against the constitutional validity of narcoanalysis. Harish Salve argued the case. When Achamma was asked about it, she pleaded ignorance and said it was paid for by the Convent.
Despite a barrage of allegations against it, the Church has remained silent, with its only response coming in the wake of the judgment. It termed the charges against Father Kottoor, who last served as Chancellor of the Diocese, and Sister Sephy as “unbelievable” while asserting their right to go in appeal and prove their innocence.
Sister Abhaya case | Knanaya church terms allegations unbelievable
B. Raman Pillai, the defence lawyer who represented Father Kottoor from 2008, also refuses to buy the conclusion arrived at by the trial court as he prepares to move the Kerala High Court against the verdict. It was a case which was highly influenced by the media and some campaigners and the end result was a travesty of justice, he laments. The CBI, which came under pressure, cooked up a story, framed witnesses and argued the case. A judge of the Kerala High Court had castigated the CBI that the investigation in the case would be handed over to some hand-picked officers of the State Police if it failed to arrest the accused. This forced the agency to change its earlier stance that it was a case of suicide, he argues.
Nearly three decades have passed since Sister Abhaya’s death. The well in which the body was found has been levelled by the Church. But another round of legal duel is on the horizon.