A special Central Bureau of Investigation court in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday sentenced Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sefi to life imprisonment for the murder of a nun in Kerala 28 years ago, Live Law reported. Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in the St Pius X Convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992, at the age of 18.
The court also fined each of the convicts Rs 5 lakh under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code. Father Kottoor was given an additional sentence of life, and another fine of Rs 1 lakh under Section 449 of the IPC for trespassing in order to commit an offence punishable with death.
The convicts were also given seven years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000 each for destruction of evidence under Section 201 of the IPC. The sentences will run concurrently, the court said.
Special CBI Judge K Sanilkumar had found Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder on Tuesday, after accepting the case of the Central Bureau of Investigation that they murdered Sister Abhaya after she happened to witness intimate exchanges between them. Since the case had no eyewitnesses, it was founded wholly on circumstantial and forensic evidences.
During the hearing on Wednesday, the prosecution pleaded for the maximum sentence for the accused, arguing that case belonged to the “rarest of rarest category”. It said the “murder was gruesome as Kottoor and Sephy were duty bound to protect Abhaya, being her teacher and hostel warden, respectively”.
The defence lawyers, on the other hand, asked for leniency. They submitted that Father Kottoor, 71, was suffering from cancer, while Sister Sephy had old parents to take care of.
During the hearing of the case, which had started in August 2019, nine prosecution witnesses in the case had turned hostile.
What proved to be vital was the testimony of a thief, identified as “Adakka” Raju, who was in the convent premises on March 27, 1992 with the intention of stealing 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 Father 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 the crime. He alleged that he was offered “crores of rupees to confess that he had killed Abhaya during a theft attempt”.
A case of multiple investigations
The state police initially concluded in 1993 that Sister Abhaya had died by suicide. The matter was then handed over to the CBI after an activist, Jomon Puthenpurackal, took it to court.
The CBI, after taking over the case from the local police in 1993, filed three closure reports at different points of time. 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 and a third round of CBI probe began.
In 2005, yet another report was filed by the CBI after an investigation by another team ruled out 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 the investigation.
The CBI then made its first arrests in the case, 10 years after the murder. Kottoor and Sister Sefi, along with Father Jose Poothrukayil, were charged 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 Sister Abhaya had accidentally intruded on Sister Sephy and the two priests while they were 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 dumped 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 the 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 destructing evidence, was also discharged by the court last year.
In October, 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.