‘God Arrived as Witness in Form of Thief’: Justice Served in Sister Abhaya Case as 177 Testifiers Die, Turn Hostile

In a 28-year-old case related to the murder of a Catholic nun in Kottayam, a CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday found two accused — priest Thomas Kottoor and nun Sister Sefi — guilty. The punishment for the duo in the longest-running investigation will be pronounced by CBI special court judge K Sanal Kumar on Wednesday.

Seventy-one-year-old Kottoor, a scholar in moral theology, is the first accused and 57-year-old Sefi is the third accused in the case.

The state police had initially concluded the 19-year-old nun Sister Abhaya, a student of Kottayam’s BCM College, and a member of the Knanaya Catholic community died by suicide on March 27, 1992. This was as she went from her hostel room to the kitchen at around 4.15 AM.

The case was handed over to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after protests led by activist Jomon Puthanpurakkal, whose campaign sought justice for the nun as the church stood by the accused. The Knanaya Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam is an eparchy of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church for Knanaya Catholics.

In the first of its three reports in the case, the CBI said the nun’s death was a case of “homicidal suicide”. But the CBI court rejected the report and ordered a fresh investigation. In its second report, the agency said it could not establish beyond doubt whether it was a suicide or murder.

In its last report filed in 2008, the CBI said it was a case of murder and arrested Kottoor, Jose Poothrukayil, (another priest) and Sefi. Kottoor taught Sister Abhaya psychology at Kottayam’s BCM College and was also Secretary to the then Bishop. He later became the Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese in Kottayam.

The CBI charged the trio with the nun’s murder, destruction of evidence, and criminal conspiracy. Jose Poothrukayil was exonerated last year after the court found no evidence against him.

“My child got justice. I am saying this by standing in the place of Sister Abhaya’s father. I was offered crores of rupees. I have not taken any amount. Lived happily with my family in three cents of land,” said Adakka Raju, a thief-turned-witness.

Raju, who had entered the convent premises allegedly to steal copper wire when the nun was murdered, turned prime witness as several of the 177 witnesses have either died or turned hostile during the 28 years and nine months.

Raju deposed before CBI that he saw two priests and a nun at the convent around the time of the nun’s death. He told media on Monday that he was promised “many things” to “own up” to the crime or change his statement as a witness.

According to the CBI charge-sheet, the slain nun had witnessed “some sexual activity” and she was killed because they feared she may disclose the scene. It said the accused allegedly hit Sister Abhaya with a blunt object and later threw ther into the well between 4:15 AM and 5 AM on March 27, 1992.

DySP Varghese P Thomas, who investigated the case, resigned from CBI alleging that he was under immense pressure by his seniors to conclude it was a suicide. According to him, the nun was hit by a blunt object on the head. “The verdict was delayed due to the intervention of the Church and the politicians,” he told media on Tuesday.

A timeline of the Sister Abhaya murder case:

March 27, 1992: The body of Sister Abhaya, daughter of Kottayam Arikkara Ikkarakkunnel Thomas and Leelamma found in a well of St Pious X Convent in Kottayam.

March 31, 1992: An action council was formed, with Kottayam Municipal Chairman PC Cherian Madukkani as president and Jomon Puthenpurakkal convener, alleging that the local police had tried to term it as a suicide by undermining the case investigation.

January 30, 1993: The Crime Branch of Kerala Police closed the investigation and filed a report to the Kottayam RDO.

March 23, 1993: The case handed over to CBI after human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal took the matter to court.

September 1996: CBI concludes in its first report that the case was a suicide. Court rejects its report and asks for reinvestigation.

March 1997: CBI in its second report says that the case was a homicide, not a suicide. The court again rejects its findings. CBI starts a fresh investigation.

2007: CBI SP Nandakumar Nair took over the probe and case gets a momentum

December 2008: CBI tells a court in Ernakulam in its third report that it was a murder and arrests three accused. Two Catholic priests, Father Thomas Kottoor and Father Jose Poothrukayil, and a nun, Sister Sefi were charged with murder, destruction of evidence, criminal conspiracy and other charges. According to the charge sheet, Abhaya was killed because she was witness to some ‘alleged sexual activity’ involving priests and a nun. She was attacked with an axe before being dumped in the well, according to the agency.

2008: Sefi filed a complaint against the CBI as it said she was forced to undergo a virginity test without her consent. According to CBI Sefi had undergone ‘ hymenoplasty’, a surgical procedure to prove she was a virgin. Later the court rejected her plea.

January 2009: All the accused were granted bail after spending six months in jail.

July 17, 2009: CBI files charge sheet in the case against the accused. The three file discharge plea.

September 14, 2009: The tapes of narco tests aired by regional TV channels showed Jose Poothrikkayil, Thomas M Kottur and Sefi revealing what happened on the night of the murder in a state of sedation induced by the truth serum

March 7, 2018: Courts acquit Jose Poothrukayil over lack of evidence.

August 26, 2019: A trial in the case starts after 27 years. Many witnesses turn hostile.

September 19, 2019: CBI produces Thresiama George, a retired professor, who had taught Abhaya at the college, as a witness. She raises serious charges against main accused Thomas Kottoor.

December 21, 2020: CBI special Court finds the priest and the nun guilty.

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