Death of Sister Abhaya: Defence attempts to dismantle the CBI case

Death of Sister Abhaya: Defence attempts to dismantle the CBI case
Sister Abhaya, a pre-degree student, was found dead in the well at Pius X Convent Hostel (L) in Kottayam town on March 27, 1992.

The nearly five-hour cross-examination in the CBI Special Court on Wednesday of CBI superintendent of police Nandakumaran Nair, who probed Sister Abhaya's death as a young CBI DySP in late 2008, was a meticulous, time-consuming exercise devised to drill large gaping holes in every aspect of the investigation under him.

The cross-examination, which began on November 3, had spilled over to consume the whole of Wednesday. Right from the manner of arrest the in-custody treatment of the accused to the nature of the witnesses and the finer points of the material evidence collected were discussed in detail.

Sleepless in custody

Senior defence counsel Raman Pillai tried to make the CBI officer accountable for all the observations he had made in the official reports submitted before courts in connection with the case more than a decade ago, and also the statements made in the court on November 3.

Nandakumaran Nair had said on November 3 that the main accused – Thomas Kottoor and Jose Puthrikayil – were “deceptive” and “made contradictory statements”. The third accused, Sister Sephy, was described as “non-cooperative”.

Raman Pillai wanted to know where in his remand report or inclusion report had he mentioned such behaviour. The CBI officer then quoted from one of his reports, in which it is said that “the accused were not prepared to divulge the entire facts known to them and, on the other hand, put hurdles and impediments in the course of the investigation”.

Nandakumran Nair had on November 3 said the accused were taken care of well in custody. “They were given a nice place to stay and were well fed. They were also allowed to do their religious rites. They had no complaints.” On Wednesday, Raman Pillai produced a petition filed by Father Thomas Kottoor in the court saying he was “not allowed to sleep and was subjected to mental harassment.”

Family matters

The senior defence counsel said that the CBI had not even properly informed of the arrest of Kottoor to his family members. Nandakumaran Nair had the other day said his team had telephonically contacted Kottoor's brother and sister. “But your report contains only the name of Jessy Thomas Malakkal, and not even her number. This means you had not bothered to collect their number and had therefore not intimated them,” Pillai said.

Nandakumaran said the CBI had indeed called the relatives and it was not mandatory to mention their phone number in the report.

Cross-examiner's trap

Defence lawyer Raman Pillai's style is to lure his prey (the prosecution witness) to stand over a nicely disguised trap with what looks like a simple straightforward question. And then, with the subsequent questions, he pulls the trap door from under his prey's feet. Nandakumaran Nair, to his credit, managed to hold on.

The CBI officer had arrested the three main accused on November 18, 2008. Pillai asked him what looked like a routine question. “Before the arrest, did you take any opinion from scientific experts.” Nandakumaran said no.

“Then why did you say in your inclusion report that it was revealed scientifically that the main accused were involved in the murder,” Pillai asked. “I was referring to the scientific tests that were conducted by the earlier investigation team that I had perused and analysed,” Nandakumaran said.

“But there is no mention of your perusal and analysis anywhere in your report,” Pillai said. Nandakumaran said this was summed up in his recorded phrase “so far”. “When I said that the investigation so far revealed, I meant that I had perused and analysed the results of the scientific tests conducted earlier,” the CBI officer said.

Transformation of an axe

The CBI team had submitted two remand reports, one on December 14 and another on December 29. Pillai pointed out two changes and the introduction of an additional accused in the December 29 report. One, the weapon changed from 'axe' to 'hand axe'. If the December 14 report said the accused were found in a “compromising position”, the later one said “objectionable circumstance. “And then, for the first time, Sister Sephy's name was included as the person who struck Sister Abhaya on the head with a hand axe.”

Pillai wanted to know where the CBI had accounted for these changes. He asked the CBI officer whether he was aware of an expert opinion that said Abhaya would have sustained far more serious and grave injuries had she been hit by an 'axe'.

The CBI officer said he had gone through all the material given to him. Was that why the 'axe' was replaced by a 'hand axe', Pillai wanted to know.

Suspect or witness

When Pillai began interrogating the CBI SP about Sanju P Mathew, Special Court judge K Sanilkumar turned furious. Sanju was a prosecution witness who first testified that he had seen Kottoor's scooter outside the wall of the St Pius Convent the night Abhaya was found dead and had later turned hostile.

“What do you intend to get out of this line of questioning other than waste time,” the judge said.

It soon became clear that Pillai's game plan was to establish that Sanju was a witness tutored by the CBI, possibly under duress. He said that both the police and even the CBI, under R R Sahay, had considered Sanju a suspect. There was a line of thought that Sanju had killed Abhaya when he was seen in a compromising position with one of the inmates of the hostel.

The CBI officer but said Sanju was not considered a suspect, even though he agreed that his predecessor Sahay had considered him one. Pillai was insinuating that the CBI team under Nandakumaran Nair forced Sanju to make a false statement instilling in him the fear of being made a suspect.

Visitor at Bishop's House

Yet another witness, Kalarkode Venugopalan Nair, was brought up to further discredit the CBI probe. Pillai wanted to know whether Nandakumaran Nair's team had verified the claims made by Kalarkode, including checking the visitor's log book of the Bishop's House in Kottayam. The CBI officer admitted he had not.

Kalarkode had testified that he had met Kottoor at the Bishop's House where the priest told him of his unholy affair with Sister Sephy.

“If you had not done it, it is clear that you know none of what he said was true,” Pillai said.

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