A special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) here on Wednesday sentenced Fr. Thomas M. Kottoor and Sister Sephy to life imprisonment for the murder of 19-year-old novice Sister Abhaya , who was found dead in a well at Pious X convent of the Knanaya Catholic order in Kottayam in March 1992.
CBI Special Judge K. Sanal Kumar found the priest and nun guilty of murder and destruction of evidence under Sections 302 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The judge also imposed a second life sentence on Fr. Kottoor for house-trespass to murder under Section 449 of the IPC. The court said both life sentences would run concurrently. The judge also fined the accused ₹5 lakh each.
The CBI argued for capital punishment for the suspects. It said the case fell in the rarest of rare category, which warranted forfeiture of life.
Fr. Kottoor and Sister Sephy pleaded for clemency. They cited ill-health. Sister Sephy said she had aged parents to support on her meagre stipend as a nun. The accused reportedly appeared stoic in court.
The court observed that Sister Sephy was the convent warden and Sister Abhaya was in her care.
The case, plagued by legal wrangling, had meandered through various judiciary levels for almost 28 years before reaching the trial stage in August last.
The CBI case was that the accused had killed Sister Abhaya after the novitiate found them in objectionable circumstances when she went to collect drinking water from the convent’s kitchen on the night of March 27.
The accused were startled by Sister Abhaya’s unexpected appearance. To prevent their liaison from being known, Sister Stephy bludgeoned her on the side of her head with the blunt side of an axe.
The suspects dumped the victim’s body in the convent well to make it appear as suicide, the CBI had argued. The agency had no case that the accused had sexually assaulted Sister Abhaya.
The counsel for the defence said the accused would appeal the verdict in the High Court.
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The CBI had arraigned another priest, Fr. Jose Poothrukayil, as an accomplice in the crime. However, the court discharged him from the case in 2018 for want of evidence. In the light of fresh evidence and witness statements, the agency has moved a review petition in the High Court to put Fr. Poothrukayil on trial for the murder.
The CBI had also arraigned a former Crime Branch SP, K. T. Michael, as fourth accused in the case on the charge of destruction of evidence. Mr. Michael had investigated the case initially.
He had concluded that the victim was genetically predisposed to bouts of major depression and had committed suicide. However, the High Court had discharged him from the case for lack of evidence. The CBI would seek a review of the decision.
The CBI had also found that Crime Branch had wilfully suppressed evidence by destroying eight objects, including Sister Abhaya’s diary, marked as evidence.
The Kottayam West police had dismissed Sister Abhaya’s death as suicide initially. The Crime Branch had seconded the opinion of the local law enforcement later.
The findings caused public outrage. The local people formed an action council headed by Jomon Puthanpurackal, a public interest litigant, to press for a CBI inquiry into the death. The agitation gained traction across Kerala, prompting the government to recommend a CBI probe in 1995.
The case took another sensational turn in 1996 when the then CBI Deputy SP Varghese. P. Thomas opted for voluntary retirement after he allegedly came under pressure from his superior to write the suspicious death as a suicide. Mr. Thomas, who was the first CBI officer to probe the death, had debunked the state law enforcement theory that the novice had committed suicide. He inferred at the outset that Sister Abhaya was murdered.
Mr. Puthenpurackal doggedly pursued the case as a complainant. The prosecution surmounted several hurdles, including hostile witnesses and missing material evidence, to secure a conviction. CBI SP Nandakumaran Nair prosecuted the case.