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Friday, July 23, 2021

28 yrs after murder of 19-year-old in Kerala, court finds priest, nun guilty

Twenty-eight years and nine months later, a CBI special court in Thiruvananthapuram found a priest and a nun guilty of the murder. The quantum of punishment for Father Thomas Kottoor, 63, and Sister Sephy, 57, the first and third accused, will be pronounced Wednesday.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram |
December 23, 2020 4:46:12 am
Sister Abhaya, Sister Abhaya murder case, Sister Abhaya verdict, Sister Abhaya case punishment, Sister Abhaya case,Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in St Pius convent in Kottayam in 1992. (Express photo)

A WATER bottle that had fallen down near the fridge inside the kitchen with water dripping out, a veil found under the door locked from outside, an axe, a basket, two slippers found at different places in the room — and crucial testimony from a thief.

All of this added up to the case presented by the CBI that led Tuesday to the conviction of the two accused in the murder of 19-year-old Sister Abhaya — a crime that has been a part of Kerala’s news cycle ever since the Catholic nun’s body was found inside a well at a convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992.

Twenty-eight years and nine months later, a CBI special court in Thiruvananthapuram found a priest and a nun guilty of the murder. The quantum of punishment for Father Thomas Kottoor, 63, and Sister Sephy, 57, the first and third accused, will be pronounced Wednesday.

Hours after the order was passed, the two accused, charged under IPC sections 302 (murder) and 201 (destruction of evidence) and on bail since 2009, were sent back to jail.

The CBI had named another priest, Father Jose Puthrikkayl, as the second accused but the court allowed his discharge petition before the trial, which began last year, citing lack of evidence.

“I had been waiting for this day. Truth has the final victory. I have been praying for the soul of my sister to get justice,’’ said Abhaya’s brother Biju Thomas, who is employed in the Middle East. Abhaya’s parents, Thomas Aikkarakunnel and Leelamma, died in 2016.

According to the CBI, Abhaya, a pre-degree college student, was killed after she found the two priests and Sephy in a compromising position inside the kitchen of the Pius X Convent hostel.

Fearing that she would expose them, the agency told the court, Kottoor strangulated her while Sephy beat herwith the axe. Together, they dumped her body in the well, the CBI told the court while building its case on circumstantial evidence.

The “Abhaya case” was among the longest and most high-profile real-life murder mysteries in Kerala, with multiple twists and turns. The accused were arrested by the CBI in November 2008, more than 16 years after the nun’s death. And during the trial, eight of the 49 prosecution witnesses, most of them close to the Church, turned hostile.

Among the key witnesses, whose testimony is believed to have been crucial, was Adakka Raju, who said that he saw two persons going down the stairs of the hostel in the early hours of March 27, 1992. Raju, who had been jailed in connection with a theft case, was known to steal copper cables from buildings.

“I had been offered a huge amount of money to change my statement. But I considered Abhaya as my daughter and stood for justice,’’ said Raju, who is now a daily wage worker.

Kottoor told reporters that he is innocent. “God is my protector. I will proceed according to the plans of God. I haven’t committed any crime,’’ he said. Sephy broke down in the courtroom after hearing the verdict.

“This is the victory of the judiciary. For the last three decades, I have been fighting for Abhaya. This verdict has the signature of God,’’ said rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal, who had been part of a group demanding justice for Abhaya.

The case was initially probed by local police as an unnatural death before the Crime Branch took over. A year after the murder, it was handed over to the CBI after a petition was submitted by a group of nuns from various congregations to the then Chief Minister, the late K Karunakaran.

In a closure report submitted in 1996, the CBI said that it could not conclude whether it was a case of suicide or homicide. But the chief judicial magistrate in Kochi rejected the report and directed the agency to continue the probe.

In 1997, the CBI moved a request to accept the closure report as the culprits could not be identified. In 2007, the court ordered the agency to subject the three suspects to narco-analysis tests. Even after the tests, the agency said it was looking for more evidence. Finally, in September 2008, the Kerala High Court ordered the CBI to hand over the probe to the agency’s Kochi unit headed then by DySP Nandakumaran Nair.

It was a team led by Nair that arrested the three accused on November 19, 2008.

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