New Delhi: The Kerala High Court Thursday suspended the life sentence and granted bail to Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy who were earlier convicted in the 1992 murder of Sister Abhaya in Kottayam.
The two accused were sentenced to imprisonment for life in December 2020 by a Thiruvananthapuram special CBI court that had found them guilty of Sister Abhaya’s murder.
A division bench of Justices K. Vinod Chandran and C. Jayachandran Thursday observed that based on prime facie examination of evidence, the accused are not guilty of the offence.
The Sister Abhaya murder case
Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well at the St Pius Convent in Kottayam district of Kerala on 27 March, 1992. Local police and the crime branch of the state had at the time said it was a case of suicide.
But a year later, the CBI took over the case when Sister Banicassia, Mother Superior, and 67 other nuns from the Knanaya Catholic Church that Abhaya was part of, wrote to then chief minister K. Karunakaran claiming the probe wasn’t conducted properly.
Nearly 17 years later, in 2009, the CBI, in its charge sheet, said the deceased had apparently seen Sister Sephy, Father Kottoor and a third accused, Father Jose Poothrikkayil, in a compromising position.
To silence her, Father Kottoor is believed to have strangled Abhaya while Sister Sephy hit her with an axe.
In December 2020, the special CBI court confirmed this finding and held that Sister Sephy and Father Kottoor had inflicted a fatal blow on the victim’s head, causing her death. The agency also found that they had then dumped her body in the well to make it look like a suicide. Father Poothrikkayil was acquitted due to lack of evidence in 2018.
The special CBI court had awarded Sister Sephy and Father Kottoor imprisonment for life and a fine of Rs 5 lakh each for the offence of murder, in addition to penalties under other sections of the IPC.
Challenging the order of the special court, the accused later appealed before the Kerala High Court, seeking suspension of sentence till the final hearing.
High court’s observations
The Kerala HC Thursday observed that there were serious inconsistencies in the statements of the prosecution witnesses.
It discussed at length the evidence of one Adakka Raju, a thief and crucial witness in the case, who had claimed that he saw Father Kottoor on the fateful night. The court noted that it was highly improbable Raju had seen the accused “in pitch darkness” from a neighbouring property, while the accused were on the fifth floor of the building where the crime allegedly took place.
It also pointed to the lack of a ‘test identification parade’ and inordinate delay of almost 15 years in recording Raju’s statement.
The test identification parade is a test for witnesses who claim to have seen culprits at the time of offence. The eyewitness is required to identify the accused by placing him/her in a “parade” along with other persons without any aid or source.
Further, two doctors had deposed before the HC that Sister Sephy admitted to having sexual intercourse with her relative. The court pointed out that the same was of no value to the case at hand. “A3 (Sister Sephy) is not on trial for her loose morals or character flaws,” the court observed.
The appellate court also raised doubts on the veracity of testimony by other doctors who had offered differing explanations for injuries on the victim’s body.
‘Neither daunted, nor intimidated’
The high court bench also took note of the case history, outrage displayed by the public and the media trial it had generated.
“The instant case evoked a lot of public outrage and the initial inference of suicide and repeated requests made by the investigating agencies to close the case as untraceable, created a frenzy which put officers, men and institutions on the dock; often in the extended media trial,” the court said.
It observed that the court was “undaunted” by the fact that the accused were members of the church, nor intimidated by public outrage.
Considering the facts and circumstances of the case, it suspended the sentence and granted bail to the accused on the execution of a bail bond.
Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy’s case
Arguing for Father Kottoor, Senior Counsel B. Raman Pillai spoke about the prosecution’s allegation that the three accused had jointly committed the crime. When the third accused was acquitted, the prosecution cannot be successfully carried out, Pillai said.
Advocate Pillai also pointed to discrepancies in the alleged weapon used for the crime. “It is pointed out that in the earlier investigation, though an axe was recovered from the premises; allegedly the offending weapon, later it was altered as a ‘kaikodali’ (or a ‘hand axe’),” he said.
He further alleged that these weapons were neither seized nor recovered from the scene of the crime, despite one doctor contending that he had seen a hand axe.
Father Kottoor’s counsel further alleged that the accused having been found in “suspicious circumstances” was later amended to “engaging in sex” to “incite public condemnation”.
P Vijayabhanu, senior advocate who appeared for Sister Sephy, also contended that the accused be granted bail by the court. He submitted that the accused had not misused her liberty prior to her conviction, nor tampered with evidence.
Vijayabhanu also said “serious prejudice” and “irreparable injury” would be caused to the accused if the bail was not granted.