The Kerala High Court on Thursday suspended the life sentence given to Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy in connection to a 1992 murder of a nun, The Hindu reported.

Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in St Pius X Convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992, at the age of 18. Kottoor and Sephy were sentenced to life imprisonment by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court in December 2020.

A division bench of Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice C Jayachandran also granted bail to the two convicts on a bond of Rs 5 lakh and two sureties, according to Live Law.

The court has also asked Kottoor and Sephy to not leave Kerala without permission. They will also have to appear before a station house officer on every Saturday for the next six months, and every second Saturday thereafter.

Advocate B Raman Pillai, appearing on behalf of Kottoor, had told the court that the sentence awarded to his client was “improper and incorrect”, according to The Hindu.

“The conviction and sentence were based on the evidence given by three unreliable witnesses,” Pillai had told the court. “Besides, the verdict was based on an unfounded story. There was nothing on record to show that the injuries found on Abhaya’s body were inflicted by any one of the accused or by them jointly.”

Advocate P Vijayabhanu, appearing on behalf of Sephy, had argued that there was no evidence to show that she and Kottoor had met each other on the night of the incident in 1992.

The murder case

The state police initially concluded in 1993 that Abhaya had died by suicide. The matter was then handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation after an activist, Jomon Puthenpurackal, took it to court.

In 1996, the agency filed a report stating it could not conclude whether it was a homicide or suicide. The court, however, rejected the submission and ordered a re-investigation. A year later, the central agency concluded that the case was indeed a homicide, but there was no evidence to try the case. This was again rejected by the court.

In 2005, yet another report was filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation after an inquiry by another team ruled out the involvement of other persons in Abhaya’s death. On November 1, 2008, the Kerala High Court directed the Kochi Unit of the central agency to take over the investigation.

The Central Bureau of Investigation then charged Kottoor, Sephy and Father Jose Poothrukayil with the nun’s murder, destruction of evidence, and criminal conspiracy in 2008. They were granted bail by the Kerala High Court in 2009.

The chargesheet filed by the central agency in July 2009 stated that Abhaya had accidentally intruded on Sephy and the two priests while they were in a “compromising position”. It said that upon being discovered, Sephy panicked and “on the spur of the moment” she hit Abhaya with an axe. After that, the three accused persons allegedly dumped Abhaya’s body into the well.

Poothrukayil was exonerated in 2019 after no evidence was found against him. But the Central Bureau of Investigation court had rejected 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 the Indian Penal Code. The dismissal of their discharge petitions was approved by the High Court and the Supreme Court.

A former officer of the Kerala Police special branch, KT Michael, who was accused of destroying the evidence, was also discharged by the court in 2019.

In October 2020, the Kerala High Court had directed investigators to expedite the trial by conducting daily hearings. A single bench of Justice VG Arun had 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 had then allowed cross-examination of witnesses through video conferencing considering the coronavirus pandemic.

Vital testimony

During the hearing of the case in the special CBI court, which had started in August 2019, nine prosecution witnesses had turned hostile.

What proved to be vital was the testimony of a thief, identified as Adakka Raju, who was on the convent premises on March 27, 1992, to steal the copper wires from the lightning rod installed at the terrace.

Raju told the court that while he was sitting atop a tree to scale down the convent wall, he saw two men climbing down the staircase at the rear side of the building. He identified one of them as Kottoor. He could not identify the second person.

Raju also told the court that the crime branch had arrested him soon after the murder and had tortured him, forcing him to own up to the crime. He alleged that he was offered “crores of rupees to confess that he had killed Abhaya during a theft attempt”.