[Sister Abhaya murder] All you need to know about the Special CBI court verdict

"...The unbroken catena of circumstances is so complete that it cumulatively points towards the guilt of the accused..", Judge Sanilkumar reasoned in his judgment
[Sister Abhaya murder] All you need to know about the Special CBI court verdict
Sister Abhaya

At long last, some line of finality was drawn to Kerala’s longest running trial, the infamous Abhaya case, as CBI Judge K Sanilkumar terms it in his judgment.

Quoting Justice VR Krishna Iyer, the judge stated:

The 'sacred cows' of shadowy doubts and marginal mistakes, processual or other, cannot deter the Court from punishing crime where it has been sensibly and substantially brought home."

The case, arguably one that has been a subject of much discussion in Malayali households for almost the lifespan of an entire generation of Keralites (including this author’s), has seen it all, lies, cover-up, political influence, movies, court cases, and almost an interminable number of closure reports.

In a spiritual hat tip to the time span of the case, Judge Sanilkumar quipped, “the Judges moved and the case stood still”, deliberately misquoting Lord Macaulay.

The verdict

“The evidence on record is more than sufficient to hold that the unbroken catena of circumstances is so complete that it cumulatively points towards the guilt of the accused, leading to the conclusion which is inconsistent with the innocence of the accused,” the Court momentously declared.

Breaking down the unbroken catena of circumstances

Sister Abhaya died by a combination of a head injury and drowning.

The examination of Abhaya’s body revealed two nail mark injuries on either side of her neck, lacerations on her neck, and an injury at the back of her head. The judge concluded that the injury was caused before her death, based on testimonies by two medical experts.

She was killed after she witnessed Father Thomas Kottoor, Sister Sephy and possibly the second accused in a compromising position, the Court concluded. Having witnessed this, she was hit on the head with a 'hand axe' (that caused the head injury) and thrown into a well to cover up the cause of her death, Justice Sanilkumar additionally noted.

There was no possibility of Sister Abhaya committing suicide, as was alleged by defence

Witnesses examined by the Court, who interacted with Abhaya in the days and weeks preceding her death found her to have been cheerful and eager to pursue her studies.

Interestingly, the Court even adverted to the testimony of two other inmates of Sister Abhaya’s convent, who were staunch upholders of the suicide theory.

They deposed that they had made plans with Sister Abhaya for a group study session in the morning on the date of her decease.

The Court remarked:

“A person bent on ending her life, and ending it in the immediate future at that, would not worry about her academic prospects, would not deny herself sleep for the sake of improving her examination...performance, and would not devote herself passionately to study, much less engage herself in combined study with her fellow students. This single fact is sufficient to blow the suicide theory sky high."

Concluding that Abhaya was "smart, pious, honest, simple, perseverant and punctilious girl, meticulous in all aspects, leading an altruistic life" the Court remarked that it was "simply impossible for her to have ended her life on her own as portrayed by the defence".

Sighting Father Thomas Kottoor in the precincts of the convent – the testimony of Adakku Raju

Adakku Raju, or Andassu (decent) Raju, as he has been affectionately called by many, was a petty thief who used to steal the copper plates from the lightning arresters on the terrace of the convent. The Judge noted that Raju steadfastly stood by his testimony that he had seen Father Thomas Kottoor and another man on the terrace of the hostel standing with torches.

Whereas the defence sought to question the credibility of Raju’s testimony on account of his antecedents, the Court noted that he stood his ground, in the face of “continuous, severe and grueling cross-examination by two lawyers for two long days…”

The order referred to how Raju faced threats, torture, and grants of huge sums of money to give up on his testimony and confess to Sister Abhaya’s murder, which he withstood.

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Sister Sephy’s conduct

The Court recorded that Sister Sephy was alone during the night of Sister Abhaya’s death, as her roommate had gone to a retreat center. There were unusual disturbances in the kitchen at night as well as in the morning, which the court culled from the testimony of other inmates in the convent, who later turned hostile.

Sister Sephy’s hymenoplasty

A key finding was that Sister Sephy had undergone a gynaecological procedure to cover up the fact that she had engaged in sexual intercourse. The Court noted that the procedure was done “on the eve” of her arrest by the CBI.

Father Thomas Kottoor’s statement

Crucially, the Court took note of a statement made by Father Kottoor to one of the witnesses, Kalarcode Venugopalan, who had contacted Kottoor after he found out that Kottoor might be required to undergo a narcoanalysis

He had emotionally admitted to Venugopal that he was not made of iron and stone but was a human being who had lived at one point with Sister Sephy as husband and wife…and why was he being crucified?

The defence sought to discredit the witness’ testimony. The Court stated that the demeanour of the accused, his gestures throughout his testimony, as well as the fact that he did not diverge from the basic facts of his testimony stood witness to his reliability.

Organized efforts by the powers that be to subvert the prosecution case

The Court noted that the inmates of the convent had suddenly turned hostile en masse “without rhyme or reason”, evidence found missing, and that the convent cook Achamma had even filed a case before the Supreme Court challenging the legal validity of narco analysis. The Court observed that she had admitted to the fact that Senior Advocate Harish Salve,"arguably India's greatest living lawyer" was her counsel before the apex court. She conceded that her litigation had been financed by the convent and that she was not aware of its nitty-gritty, the judgment said.

This proved, according to the Court "a systematic, organized effort was exerted sub rosa by the powers that be to subvert the prosecution case and prevent it from reaching its logical conclusion.”

Judge Sanilkumar also came down strongly on the officers investigating the case, Deputy Superintendent of Police K Samuel and the then Superintendent of Police KT Michael whose “strange interest” in the case led to the destruction of evidence, the concocting of evidence and the influencing of witnesses, as well as torturing Adacku Raju.

The Court gave stern warning against such kind of interference in the future, ordering that a copy of its judgment be served on the State Police Head.

On these, as well as an elaborate examination of other facts proved, the Court closed the contentious case.

[Read judgment]

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Fr Thomas Kottoor v. State of Kerala.pdf
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