Abhaya case: Justice at last after 28 years of conspiracies, probes, intrigues

From pressure on witnesses to turn hostile to coercion on a CBI chief to dub the case as suicide, the murder case of Sister Abhaya that stretched for 28 years has gone through several ups and down before the guilty were finally brought to justice

Sister Abhaya
On March 27, 1992, Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in pious tenth convent in Kottayam. Photo: Twitter

“Finally my child got justice. I have two daughters. My neighbours have daughters. All girls should get justice. I am happy now. I am going to have booze today”.

This is how Raju, a crucial witness in the murder case of Sister Abhaya, reacted the day a special CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram found Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty in the case, putting to rest a murder mystery that stretched for 28 years. Notoriously known as ‘Adakka Raju,’ a nickname he earned by stealing areca nuts, Raju said he faced tremendous pressure to turn and deny his initial statement that led to the conviction of the accused in the case. When Sister Abhaya’s fellow nuns, considered pious and ‘the brides of Jesus Christ’ turned hostile, Raju, said to be a petty thief, ignored offers of money, and stood by his statement for 28 years.

His patience of almost three decades paid off when the Special CBI court on Wednesday sentenced Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy to life imprisonment for the murder of Sister Abhaya.

The sentence was read out by special court judge K Sanilkumar.

Father Kottoor has been awarded a double life term, while both of them have been given an additional sentence of seven years each for destroying evidence and imposed a fine of ₹5 lakh each.

On March 27, 1992, Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in the Pious Tenth convent in Kottayam. An abandoned veil and a single slipper were found in the kitchen. The refrigerator in the kitchen was left open and water was found spilt on the floor. Her other slipper was found near the well from which her body was recovered. Obvious signs of struggle found at the crime scene indicated that the victim was forcefully subdued. While the autopsy found no signs of sexual assault, the Kottayam West Police began an investigation and filed an FIR for unnatural death.

While the investigations stretched for years, the Crime Branch took over from the point where the local police concluded it as a case of suicide. At the end of a yearlong investigation, the Crime Branch too submitted a report with the same finding that Abhaya killed herself.

Related news: Sister Abhaya murder: CBI court finds catholic priest, nun guilty after 28 years

The death of a young nun created a storm in Kerala, an action council was formed, and human right defenders created ruckus over the findings of the police and the case was handed over to CBI in 1993. When the CBI submitted that Abhaya was killed, they had no evidence about the murderers. The court refused to accept the report and the investigation was handed over to a new team.

At least 13 batches of officers probed the case, with most reports having open-ended findings and not-so-certain conclusions. While the court kept rejecting the agency’s reports, the CBI requested for the closure of the case for want of evidence at least four times. But, the court refused to admit the requests. The case was transferred to the Kerala branch of the CBI in 2008.

Finally, in 2009 July, the CBI submitted charge-sheet against two priests and a nun. According to the charge-sheet at 4 am on the fateful day, Abhaya came to the kitchen to take water from the fridge and witnessed two priests Fr Thomas Kottoor, Fr Jose Puthrikkayil and Sister Stephy in a compromising position. Scared that Abhaya will spill the beans, Fr Thomas Kottoor strangled her and sister Stephy hit her with an axe. They dumped her body in the well. But, Abhaya was not dead by then. Thus the cause of death was found to be drowning. Adakka Raju, the prime witness in the case who entered the convent compound for stealing early in the morning found the priests and Sister Stephy in suspicious circumstances.

There was a long list of 177 prosecution witnesses, among which many turned hostile and a few others passed away. Father Jose Puthrukkayil was dropped off for want of evidence during the course of the trial. Finally, the special CBI court pronounced the historic judgment- found Fr Kottoor and sister Stephy guilty for the homicide of Sister Abhaya.

Price of truth: A defeated officer, a transferred judge, a dead cop  

The CBI’s Deputy Superintendent of Police, Varghese P Thomas, who was leading the investigation, announced his voluntary retirement in January 1994 while the probe was under progress. He disclosed that he was under severe pressure to conclude Abhaya case as a matter of suicide. It was under his leadership that the team suspected the case to be a murder. However, Varghese quit when he had 10 more years of service. In a controversial expose, he told the media that he was asked by his higher authority “not to waste CBI’s precious time” and to conclude the case as a suicide. He refused to obey and preferred to exit.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday (December 22), Varghese expressed joy over the judgment that finally found the accused guilty. “I stood by the truth. I had to pay heavy price for that, but I am happy,” said an emotional Varghese.

VT Reghunath, the former Chief Judicial Magistrate at Ernakulum, got a call from the office of the High Court Registrar in 2006. The registrar had a very unusual demand to put before him.

“The CBI submitted a refer report to drop the case. As a judge, I wanted to have a deeper understanding of the facts of the case and thus ordered a site inspection as a visit to the crime scene would help to ascertain facts clearer. On the very next day, I was asked by the registrar not to proceed with the site inspection,” said Reghunath, who has been practising as a defence lawyer in NIA Court at Ernakulum.  “The registrar told me that he had been actually conveying a message from a high court judge. I said I could not recall my own order without having a valid reason,” Reghunath added.

On the next day during lunch break, a staff of the court informed Reghunath that the entire case file was taken by a special messenger sent from the high court. Within a few days, he had the next shock – a transfer as the sub-judge in another court.

“Though I was transferred, the judicial order remains. Whoever my successor is bound to follow the order. Knowing this, the high court did not appoint a new CJM to the court emptied by my transfer for a few months”. Later, through a suo- motto action, the high court dismissed the order for site inspection.

VV Augustine, former Assistant Sub Inspector of Police, the first officer who had reached the crime scene on the day of Abhaya’s death, committed suicide years later in 2008. He was found dead in his home in Kottayam with his wrist slashed. A suicide note left by Augustine held the CBI responsible for his death. He took his life a day after he was summoned by the CBI with regard to the investigation of Abhaya’s death. Augustine was the officer who prepared the FIR and conducted an inquest examination. There were allegations that he had tampered with the crime scene and some crucial information was omitted from the FIR. He was subjected to narcoanalysis along with the three accused while the case was under the CBI.