India: Life terms for priest and nun in Sister Abhaya murder case

Thiruvananthapuram: A Central Bureau of Investigation court here on Wednesday handed out life imprisonment to the two key accused, a priest Father Thomas M Kottoor and a nun, Sister Sephy, in the murder of Sr Abhaya, a nun in Kottayam in 1992.

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Both were also fined Rs500,000 each. Kottoor was fined an additional Rs100,000 for trespass into the convent where the murder was committed.

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The court had found them guilty on Tuesday and the judge K Sanalkumar announced the punishment for the two on Wednesday. Kottoor’s counsel had requested for a lenient punishment considering his age and that he was a cancer patient. Sephy’s counsel pointed out that she had to take care of her aged parents. The court announced the punishment after listening to the defendants’ pleas.

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Kottoor had been found guilty under sections 302 (murder), 201 (destruction of evidence) and 449 (house trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death), and Sephy had been found guilty under sections 302 and 201.

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On Tuesday when the court declared the two guilty, Kottoor had said, “I’m innocent. Everything will happen according to God’s plan. There’s nothing to fear”. Sephy broke down and did not comment to the media.

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Nearly three decades

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The verdict comes only three months short of 29 years after the nun’s body was found in the well of the St Pious Convent of the Knanaya Catholic order in Kottayam on March 27, 1992.

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Sr Abhaya was an 18-year-old novitiate at the convent. The CBI’s case was that Sr Abhaya was killed by the accused when she accidentally found them in objectionable circumstances when she went to the convent’s kitchen to collect drinking water.

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The CBI argued that Sr Sephy bludgeoned Sr Abhaya with the blunt side of an axe and that the suspects then dumped her body in the well to make it appear like a suicide.

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Through the course of the case, the high court discharged another accused priest Jose Poothrukayil from the case for want of evidence. The same benefit was accorded by the high court to K.T. Michael, former superintendent of police of the crime branch. Michael had been accused of destroying evidence.

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Evidence ignored

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There had been enough pointers to consider it a murder, but alleged pressure from authorities, some police officials who played along with the suicide theory and more than half a dozen who gave their statements later changing sides led to the case meandering through nearly three decades.

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Instead, the local police chose to dismiss the case as a suicide. A second inquiry that followed, by the crime branch of police, led by K.T. Michael, also backed the suicide theory.

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The case could well have been completely ignored but for the intervention of activist Joemon Puthenpuackal who pressed for further inquiry after an action council was formed to pursue the case. That was when the case was handed over to the CBI in 1994.

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Grieving parents

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Sr Abhaya’s grieving parents spent their entire life after that fateful day of March 27, 1992 fighting for justice for their murdered daughter, but did not live to see the day of the verdict.

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The young nun’s parents, Aikarakunnel Thomas and Leelamma, died in 2016. On Tuesday when the CBI court found the accused priest and nun guilty, Sr Abhaya’s brother Biju Thomas expressed happiness. “There was interference to nullify the case. But I’m happy that justice has been delivered”, Thomas said.

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