After 28 Years, Court Finds Priest And Nun Guilty Of Murder In Sister Abhaya Case

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The case in reference is Fr. Thomas Kottoor v. State of Kerala [C.P. No. 2/2009 of CJM, Ernakulam in R.C. No. 8 (S)/1993/CBI/KER.
  • The decision in the case was pronounced by CBI special court Judge J. Sanal Kumar.
  • CBI officer Nandakumaran Nair, who led the investigation, deposed before the court that the case was in essence one of "sex and murder".
  • The accused were Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy mainly.
  • Kottoor has been charged guilty for offences under Sections 302(murder), 201(destruction of evidence) and 449(criminal trespass) of the Indian Penal Code. Sephy was declared guilty for offences under Sections 302 and 201 IPC.

INTRODUCTION

Catholic nun Abhaya’s body was found in a well on March 27, 1992. After 28 years,now, a special CBI Court in Thiruvananthapuram held two accused guilty of murdering her. The victim was just 18 at that time.

The Special CBI Court in Thiruvananthapuram pronounced FatherThomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy, a priest and a nun of the Catholic Church respectively, guilty of murder in the current case.

The decision in this regard was pronounced by the special court Judge of the CBI J. Sanal Kumar.

The judgement was passed 28 years after Sister Abhayawas found in the well of St Pius convent. She stayed in St. Pius convent itself.Abhaya’s parents Thomas and Leelammadied few years ago awaiting justice for their little daughter.

SECTIONS LEVIED ON THE ACCUSED

Section 201 IPC: This section is with regards to causing disappearance of evidence as an offence, or giving false information to screen offender. – “Whoever, knowing or having reason to believe that an offence has been committed, causes any evidence of the commission of that offence to disappear, with the intention of screening the offend­er from legal punishment, or with that intention gives any infor­mation respecting the offence which he knows or believes to be false; if a capital offence.—shall, if the offence which he knows or believes to have been committed is punishable with death, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine; if punishable with imprisonment for life.—and if the offence is punishable with 1[imprisonment for life], or with imprisonment which may extend to ten years, shall be punished with imprison­ment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine; if punishable with less than ten years’ imprisonment.—and if the offence is punishable with imprisonment for any term not extend­ing to ten years, shall be punished with imprisonment of the description provided for the offence, for a term which may extend to one-fourth part of the longest term of the imprisonment pro­vided for the offence, or with fine, or with both.":

Section 302 IPC:This section is with regards to punishment for murder. – “Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or 1[imprisonment for life], and shall also be liable to fine."

Section 449 IPC:This section is in regards with House-trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death.— “Whoever commits house-trespass in order to the committing of any offence punishable with death, shall be punished with 1[imprisonment for life], or with rigorous imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Punishment—Imprisonment for life, or rigorous imprisonment for 10 years and fine—Cognizable—Non-bailable—Triable by Court of Ses­sion—Non-compoundable."

FURTHER DETAILS

In the trial that happened in August 2019, nine prosecution witnesses in the case had not spoken a word during the trial.:

As per the CBI case, the convicts killed Sister Abhaya after she witnessed some of their intimate exchanges.The case without eye-witnesses was purely dependant on circumstantial evidence and forensic materials only.

A CBI officer Nandakumaran Nair, who led the investigation, deposed before the court that the case was in essence one of "sex and murder".

One more accused in the case above, Father Jose Poothrikkayil, was discharged by the CBI Court last year. Discharging Poothrikkayil, the CBI Courthad held thatthe prosecution had failed to bring out sufficient material to proceed against him. Poothrikkayilchallenged the CBI’s decision in the case, a plea was filed in the High Court. The court had although rejected it.

The Court had not taken into account the discharge pleas of Kottoor and Sephy observing that there were sufficient grounds for prima facie presuming that the two had committed offences punishable under Indian Penal Code sections 302 (murder) and 201 (destroying evidences) read with section 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention). The dismissal of their discharge petitions was approved by both the High Court and the Supreme Court.

K T Micheal, a former officer of the Kerala police special branch, who was accused of destruction of evidence, was also discharged by the court last year.

During October this year, the High Court directed to expedite the trial by doing it on a day-to-day basis. A single bench of Justice V G Arun observed that it was "disheartening to note that criminal proceedings pertaining to a crime of 1992 is yet to attain finality, whether it be by reason of providence or design". The Court allowed cross-examination of witnesses through video conferencing mode considering the situation of COVID-19.

BACKGROUND

Sister Abhaya was a nun atSyro Malabar Catholic Church. She was found dead in the well of Pious Tenth Convent at Kottayam on March 27, 1992. She was then an18-year-old student of pre-degree course.:

In 1993, the state police initially concluded that the cause of death was suicide. After JomanPuthenprackal, an activist, took over the court, the matter was then handed over to the CBI.

After taking over the case from the local police in 1993, the CBI, filed three closure reports at different times. During 1996, the agency presented a report wherein it stated that it was challenging for them to conclude whether it was a homicide or suicide. The court, however, dismissed the submission and ordered a re-investigation in the said matter. Nearly after a year’s time, the central agency finally pur forward that the case was indeed a homicide. However, there was no evidence to try the case. This was again rejected by the court and a third round of CBI probe was initiated.

In the year 2005, one more report was filed by the CBI after an investigation was done by another team. They has ruled out the possibility of involvement of other persons in Sister Abhaya’s death. On November 1, 2008, the High Court of Kerala directed the Kochi Unit of the central agency to take over this investigation.

After 10 years of the alleged murder, the CBI finally made its first arrests in the case. Catholic priests Thomas Kottoor, Father Jose Poothrukayil, and Sister Sephy were charged with the nun’s murder, destruction of evidence, and criminal conspiracy in 2008. Although, they were granted bail by the Kerala High Court in 2009.

The charge sheet filed by the central agency in the period July 2009 stated that Sister Abhaya had accidentally intruded upon Sister Sephy and the two priests in a "compromising position". It said that upon being discovered, Sister Sephy panicked and – "on the spur of the moment" – she hit Sister Abhaya with an axe. After that, the three accused allegedly threw Abhaya's body into the well.

Father Poothrukayil was exonerated last year after no evidence was found against him. But the CBI Court had rejected the discharge pleas of Kottoor and Sister Sephy, observing that there were sufficient grounds for prima facie presuming that the two had committed offences punishable under Indian Penal Code. The dismissal of their discharge petitions was approved by the High Court and the Supreme Court.

Former officer of the Kerala police special branch KT Michael, who was accused of destruction of evidence, was also discharged by the court last year. Nine prosecution witnesses in the case had turned hostile during the trial, which had started in August 2019.

THE CURRENT SCENARIO

Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephywereheld guilty on Tuesday of killing 21-year-old Sister Abhaya back in 1992, and destroying evidence of the killing.They have been sentenced for life imprisonment.

Kottoor has been held guilty for offences under Sections 302(murder), 201(destruction of evidence) and 449(criminal trespass) of the Indian Penal Code. Sephy was held guilty for offences under Sections 302 and 201 IPC.

Sephy, 55, has not yet publicly commented on the ruling, but Kottoor, 69, insisted he was innocent.

"I have done no wrong. God is with me," he told local media outside court on Wednesday, when he was sentenced.

CONCLUSION

It is said that justice that is late is justice denied. Sister Abhaya’s parents were not even alive after she got justice. 28 years is a long time to drag a case – especially of a capital offence such as murder. This proved that people with power can get away with the crimes they do.

Just because a person is in a position that involves religious sentiments, this does not mean that they can get away with the crimes that they do!

This also portrays that the judicial system was not functioning properly earlier. There is a hope that such a case does not occur ever again.

 

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Ishita Desai Online
on 28 December 2020
Published in Criminal Law
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