Witness, who first saw signs of Sr Abhaya's struggle, swallows her words

Yet another prosecution witness in the Sister Abhaya murder trial that is currently on in the CBI Special Court in Thiruvananthapuram has turned hostile on Friday. Achamma, the fourth witness to be declared hostile, was the mess supervisor of St Pious X Convent at the time of Sister Abhaya's death.

The 65-year-old Achamma selectively disowned certain portions of her earlier statements. To the police on the day of Sr Abhaya's death, and many years later in front of the CBI, Achamma had said that the morning she came down to the kitchen from her room on the first floor she had seen a pair of slippers that “looked like a nun's” carelessly thrown about in the kitchen.

One was found between the fridge and the wash basin, and the other was found inside the kitchen between a fallen headscarf of a nun and an axe. The headgear looked stuck under the backdoor of the kitchen in such a way that only the head portion could be seen inside.

Defiantly forgetful

On Friday, Achamma told the CBI court that she saw the headscarf but denied seeing anything else. Not the slippers thrown about in a state of agitation nor the axe near the scarf. “We keep an axe in the kitchen, and that was in the place it was usually kept,” Achamma said.

Repeated questioning by prosecution lawyer Navas elicited just one response from Achamma: “I don't remember a thing.” Earlier, she had also said that the fridge kept on the way to the kitchen was found to be opened several times. This too she had forgotten, she claimed.

Navas asked Achamma whether she was taking any medicines for memory loss. Achamma, who seemed to fiercely avoid eye contact with the prosecution lawyer, gave a grumpy no. Perhaps in an attempt to emotionally sway Achamma, Navas said it was sad that she was working against the interests of the dead nun. “A curse will fall upon you,” Navas said, seemingly at his wit's end.

Crumbling defiance

“Do you have a bank account,” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Now that all your needs are taken care of by the convent where you are working why would you need a bank account,” he asked. “My nephews who are in the Gulf send me money,” she said.

Earlier, CBI Special Court judge K Sanal Kumar had asked her what felt like ice-breaker questions. “Where are you working now,” he asked. She was in a convent. “Which denomination you belong to,” he asked. “Knanaya,” she said. Incidentally, the accused belong to the Knanaya community.

Since Achamma seemed hell-bent on forgetting, the prosecution lawyer wanted at least to know whether the police and later the CBI had talked to her about Abhaya's death. She said yes. He then asked whether the CBI or the police had anything against her. She said no. “Then why should they write down things that you have not said,” Navas asked.

Eventually, Achamma said she might have told the things attributed to her in the police and CBI testimonies but said she had now forgotten about it. “I might have said it but I don't remember,” Achamma said.

Harish Salve's client

There was more discomfort in store for Achamma. “Do you know who represented you in the Supreme Court,” Navas asked. “I don't know anything,” she said. (Navas was referring to the petition filed in the name of Achamma in the Supreme Court against conducting polygraph test and brain mapping on her.)

“It was Harish Salve, who takes lakhs as fees, who argued for you in the Supreme Court,” Navas said. “I don't know the names of lawyers. I don't know anything,” Achamma said. “Does it mean that these cases were filed on your behalf by someone else without your knowledge,” Navas asked. “It could be,” Achamma said. Navas then put an end to his questioning.

Dogs' night out

Now it was defence lawyer J Jose's turn to cross examine. “Do you have dogs in the convent,” he began. Yes, Achamma said. “Do they bark,” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Do they bark at you,” Jose asked. “No, they were very close to me,” Achamma smiled. It was the first time she looked calm on the podium.

Jose perhaps was trying to establish that no unfamiliar faces had tried to intrude into the convent on the fateful day. It was earlier established that the first accused Fr Kottoor had only rarely visited the convent.

Parrot as witness

The judge, however, was bothered by the manner of the defence lawyer's cross examination. “You are making your defence points through her,” he said. More than cross questioning the witness, the defence lawyer was making statements that Achamma quickly agreed to.

“So if the kitchen door is left open, the light from the passage way can reach up to the work area,” Jose would say. Achamma would say yes. “So the fridge was kept beyond the dining hall for inmates,” Jose would say. Achamma would say yes.

“So you were taken to Bangalore for polygraph and brain mapping tests,” Jose would say. Achamma would say yes. At this point, the judge seemed to have had enough. “Think before you answer. It should not seem to me that you have been tutored to give these answers,” he told Achamma.

Earlier, too, there was a hint that the judge felt that the witness was parroting someone else's words. He was suspicious about the English word 'veil' used by Achamma. “Is that how you normally refer a nun's headscarf,” he had asked Achamma, and then looked at the defence team in amusement.

Now, the judge wanted Achamma herself to list the tests she was subjected to. “There was a lie-detector test (nuna parishodhana),” she said haltingly. “That's the polygraph test the lawyer was referring to. Then what,” he asked. She was clueless. Fact is, polygraph and brain mapping was not done on her as Harish Salve had secured a verdict against the tests.

Hostile four

Achamma is now the fourth witness to turn hostile in the Abhaya murder trial. On September 4 Nisha Rani, a witness the prosecution banked on to paint third accused Sr Sephy as immoral, said she had not said anything demeaning about Sr Sephy. The prosecution then refrained from questioning Nousha Rani, sister of Nisha, knowing she too would take her elder sister's line.

Earlier Sister Anupama, Sr Abhaya's convent mate, and Sanju P Mathew, a neighbour, had told the CBI court that they had not said the things attributed to them by the CBI.

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