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Friday, December 1, 2023

The strange case of Sister Abhaya: An indictment of the criminal justice system

Twenty-nine years back, on March 27, 1992,  Sister Abhaya, a Catholic nun, was found dead in a well in St. Pius Convent Hostel, Kottayam. Twenty-eight years later, in the longest running investigation in Kerala, the Special CBI Court in Kerala, convicted the accused Father Thomas Kottoor, 69, and Sr. Sephy, 55, to life term imprisonment, charging them with murder (IPC Section 302 and destruction of evidence (IPC Section 201).

From being passed off as a suicide to a murder verdict, the Sister Abhaya trial has indeed come a long convoluted path; a path that ironically, imparts only a long delayed sense of closure to the trial and not  justice to the victim or her traumatised, still-grieving family.

The victim and the accused are members of the Knanaya Catholic Church, headquartered in Kottayam. At the time of her death, Abhaya had been a pre-degree student in a college run by the Catholic Church, where Fr. Kottoor, who  was also secretary to the bishop, taught psychology.

During the trial, eight of the 49 prosecution witnesses turned hostile. However, the court relied upon circumstantial evidence and the statement of Adakka Raju. Raju had happened to see the priests at the hostel, where he had sneaked into in the early hours of March 27, 1992, the day of the incident.

The crux of the CBI case is that Sr. Sephy had a clandestine affair with two priests, both teaching in a college in Kottayam. On the day of the incident, Abhaya had been preparing for an exam. Her colleague Sister Shirly woke her up at 4 am that morning. She then went to the kitchen to take cold water from the fridge to wash her face to keep her awake.

When Abhaya entered the kitchen, she allegedly saw the two priests, Kottoor and Puthrikkayl, and the nun in a compromising position. Fearing she would disclose the incident, the first accused, Kottoor allegedly strangulated her while the third accused, Sephy, allegedly beat her with an axe. Together, they dumped her body in a well within the compound.

The local police had probed the case on the day Abhaya was found dead. A case of unnatural death was registered based on a statement given by Sister Leissue, Mother Superior of the Convent. On April 13, the crime branch wing of state police took over the probe, and, on January 30, 1993, submitted a final report saying that Abhaya had died of suicide.

The CBI took up the investigation a year after the incident, on March 29, 1993. The probe was handed over to the central agency based on a complaint given by Sister Banicassia, Mother Superior, and over 65 other nuns, to then chief minister of Kerala. Alleging that  Abhaya was murdered, they said the case was not being investigated properly and appealed to the CM to entrust the investigation to the CBI.

The murky ramifications of the trial, which involved  powerful players in high places  can be read here and here.

However, the impact of Sr. Abhaya’s homicide, which is a violent inflicted death, on surviving family members, is beyond comprehension. During the course of investigation, Sr. Abhaya’s parents died. Twenty-eight years later, her elder brother, Biju Thomas, still grapples with regret and answered questions.

“Had the perpetrators warned her to keep quiet, she would have. Instead, they silenced her,” he says in anguish.

A homicide is a violent, sudden and unanticipated death that often has devastating and painful  impacts on the survivors of the loss, especially the family.  The grief such loss survivors experience is termed disenfranchised, which means it cannot be publicly acknowledged, receive social acceptance and be mourned openly.  In addition, the uncomprehending nature of loss leads to anger, fear, lack of compassion from law enforcement, media intrusions, loss of privacy, while unfamiliar criminal justice protocols and court proceedings complicate the grieving process.

The wheels of justice indeed  turn sluggishly when the accused are the rich and powerful, members of  the most powerful institution in the world – the Catholic Church. While the inordinately delayed closure is hardly a cause for celebration, it certainly does restore our faith in the due process of law.

The verdict is a triumph of the integrity and honesty of a few committed individuals in their relentless pursuit of truth. For instance, Jomon Puthenpuracal, a relatively unknown social activist from the same congregation as the victim, was the primary whistle blower, who steadfastly persevered with the case  in the  courts. Of equal and perhaps greater importance was the  exemplary integrity of the lower court judges who pushed and prodded the CBI to probe deeper.

Finally, the  sterling testimony of Raju, the sole eyewitness of the crime, who happened to intrude into the scene of the crime, clinched the case. Despite threats and intimidation and lucrative inducements  from the powerful lobby, Raju  stood firmly by his testimony  in his quest for justice for Sister Abhaya. His reason was simple: As the father of three girls, he saw the deceased as another daughter.

This is a striking contrast to the  complete disregard of moral and theological values and principles of the Knanaya Church that was a mute spectator to the crime and its aftermath, and its tacit support to the accused and their role in glossing over the crime.

The Abhaya verdict is a moment of reckoning for all institutions to reflect on their complicity in protecting, perpetuating and normalising abuse of power at  the individual, organisational and institutional levels.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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