Thiruvananthapuram: In a landmark verdict, the CBI Special Court on Tuesday found the two main accused, Fr Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, guilty of Sister Abhaya's death.
The verdict comes 28 years after Sr Abhaya was found dead in the well of the St Pius Convent, Kottayam on March 27, 1992.
The Special Court judge K Sanilkumar will hear the convicts tomorrow and read out their sentences. The verdict has come as a near surprise as crucial prosecution witnesses, at least nine of them, had turned hostile during the trial stage.
The Court also made the observation that the prosecution witnesses, whoever it could manage to hold on, were strong and convincing.
It now looks that the Special Court had found merit in the prosecution argument that the local police and the Crime Branch that probed the case before the CBI was called in had tampered with and destroyed crucial evidence.
The prosecution had also attempted to establish that the Crime Branch had failed to even hand over objects from the crime scene to the court.
Charges of murder and destruction of evidence has been slapped on the two accused, who broke down after the verdict was read. Fr Kottoor will now be shifted to the Poojappura Central Jail and Sr Sephy to the Attakulangara Sub Jail.
The two have been found guilty under Sections 302 (Murder) and Section 449 (House-trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death) of the Indian Penal Code.
There was concern that the court would not find the testimony of a small-time thief convincing. After the nightwatchman Challappa Das had died and Sanju P Mathew, who lives near the convent, turned hostile, thief Adaykka Raju was the only person who had seen Fr Thomas Kottoor enter the Convent the night Abhaya was found dead. In the court Raju stuck to his stand that he had seen two men walk stealthily into the Convent as he was trying to pull out the copper strips from the lightning conductor at the roof of the convent. Besides Raju, handwriting expert M A Ali, and Thresiamma, a former professor at BCM College, too stood strongly by what they had told the CBI during the interrogation stage many years ago.
Thresiamma was Abhaya's Malayalam teacher. She had gone to the Convent on the morning of Abhaya's death. She said she had seen a small wound mark above the upper lip and to the right of Abhaya's nose. Another witness, photographer Varghese Chacko, had mentioned two wound marks on either side of Abhaya's neck. He too had stuck to his statement. Thresiamma had also told the court that teachers at BCM Colllege used to whisper that Fr Kottoor and Fr Poothrukayil were behind Abhaya's death.
The prosecution used the expertise of Ali, a retired scientific officer of Central Forensic Science Laboratory, to establish before the CBI Special Court that the original inquest report submitted by the Kottayam Police Station in the case was a cooked up one with forged signatures.
Sr Abhaya, a nun of the Knanaya congregation and a second-year pre-degree student of Kottayam BCM College was a resident of Pius X convent in Kottayam. She was found dead in the well of the convent on March 27, 1992. There were three accused in the case: Fr Thomas Kottoor, Fr Jose Poothrukayil and Sister Sephy.
The prosecution charge is that Abhaya was hit with a hand axe and then dumped in the well of the convent by the three accused when they realised Abhaya had discovered them in “objectionable circumstances”.
Fr Poothrukayil was let off by the CBI Special Court in March, 2018, citing poor evidence for his presence in the convent.
Fr Kottoor and Sr Sephy remain the two accused. Their lawyers reject the charges, saying it was a case of suicide.
Fr Kottoor was the chancellor of the Kottayam diocese, and a psychology professor in BCM College, Kottayam, where Abhaya studied. He had also authored six books. Sr Sephy was a resident of the Pius X Convent. Poothrukayil was a Malayalam professor at BCM College.
There were 177 witnesses but only 49 could be cross-examined. Much to the embarrassment of the CBI, many of its crucial witnesses, especially Abhaya's roommate Sr Anupama and a man who lived near the convent, Sanju P Mathew, turned hostile. They disowned before the Special Court the statements they had given the CBI earlier.
ABHAYA CASE: A BRIEF HISTORY
March 27, 1992: Abhaya found dead in mysterious circumstances in a well inside the premises of Pius X convent, Kottayam
March 31, 1992: Abhaya Case Action Council formed
January 30, 1993: Crime Branch submits report to the Kottayam RDO court after a probe of nearly 10 months.
March 29, 1993: The CBI Kochi unit files FIR in the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam. Within six months, the CBI team led by Kochi unit DySP Varghese P Thomas rejects the CBI finding that Abhaya's death was a suicide and concluded that the nun was murdered.
December 30, 1993: Varghese P Thomas puts in his papers
March 7, 1994: Varghese P Thomas tells a specially convened press conference in Kochi that pressure was put on him by his senior officer, then SP of CBI Kochi unit V Thyagarajan, to record Sister Abhaya's death as suicide in the case diary.
December 6, 1996; July 12, 1999; August 30, 2005: The dates on which the CBI filed closure reports in the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam. In all three instances, the closure reports were rejected and further probe ordered. The first said it was hard to say whether it was suicide or homicide, the second said it was murder but was hard to establish the identity of the perpetrators, and the third said no one was involved in Abhaya's death.
July 11, 2007: A small-time thief Adaykka Raju tells the CBI that he had seen two priests sneaking into the convent while he was trying to steal the copper rods of the lightning conductor installed at the roof of Pius X Convent.
August 2007: Narco Analysis tests were conducted on Fr. Thomas Kottoor, Fr. Jose Poothrukayil and Sr. Sephy
May, 2008: Abhaya case was taken over by a CBI team led by CBI crime unit SP R M Krishna and CBI DySP R K Agarwal.
September 4, 2008: Case transferred from CBI Delhi unit to Kochi unit.
November 1, 2008: Kochi unit DySP Nandakumar Nair takes charge of the investigation.
November 18, 2008: Three accused in the case – Fr Thomas Kottoor, Fr Jose Poothrikayil and Sr Sephy – arrested. This was 16 years after the death of Sr Abhaya.
July 17, 2009: CBI DySP Nandakumar Nair files a chargesheet against the three accused in the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam. They were charged with murder, destruction of evidence, and defamation
March 16, 2011: The three accused file release petition in the CJM Court, Ernakulam.
March 7, 2018: Thiruvananthapuram CBI Court rejects the release petition of Fr Kottoor and Sr Sephy but Fr Poothrukayil was let off citing inadequate evidence.
July 15, 2019: Supreme Court refuses to take cognisance of the release petitions filed by Fr Kottoor and Sr Sephy, asks them to face trial in the CBI Special Court, Thiruvananthapuram.
August 26, 2019: Sister Abhaya murder trial begins in CBI Special Court, Thiruvananthapurm
December 12, 2019: The High Court quashes the Thiruvananthapuram CBI Special Court order summoning two doctors (N. Krishnaveni and Pravin Parvathappa) who had conducted narco analysis tests on the accused. The Court observed that the narco analysis conducted on the accused was inadmissible as evidence according to the Supreme Court judgment in the Selvi vs State of Karnataka case. The SC had held that interrogation techniques such as narco-analysis, lie-detector tests, and brain-mapping violated an accused person’s right against self-incrimination under Article 20(3), and his/her right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.