Kochi: The Kerala High Court on Thursday granted bail to Catholic priest Thomas M. Kottur and co-convict Sister Steffi in the sensational sister Abhaya murder case.
The two have been asked to deposit a sum of Rs 5 lakh each and refrained from leaving the state without the court's permission.
Incidentally, in December 2020, a CBI Special Court had sentenced Kottur to two life terms besides a fine of Rs 5 lakhs after conviction under Section 302 of the IPC.
Sister Steffi was also convicted and handed down life imprisonment under the same Section in addition to seven years of rigorous imprisonment for tampering with evidence under Section 201.
Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well on March 27, 1992 at the Pious Tenth Convent in Kottayam.
Joemon Puthanpurakal, Convener of Sister Abhaya Action Council, who was present at the court slammed the CBI for its "laxity".
"It's strange and unfortunate that the CBI doesn't have a standing counsel and the counsel who appeared in this case for the CBI is one who does not understand Malayalam and did nothing. What happened today was the accused have only got bail without the court going into the merit of the case," said Puthanpurakal.
"We will now write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to the CBI director on how the CBI has been handling this case," said Puthanpurakal who has been following this case for the past three decades and has even written a book on this case.
A case unsolved for 28 years
Sister Abhaya was reported missing on the morning of 27 March 1992. She had woken at 4:00 am to study for exams, and was last known to have gone to the kitchen for a drink.
The refrigerator door was left open, a bottle of water was spilt on the floor and a single slipper sat under the fridge – its pair was found beside the convent hostel's well.
After a brief search, Sister Abhaya's body was found in the convent hostel's well in the early hours of the same day. Kottayam West Police Station upgraded their investigation to that of unnatural death.
At 10:00 am the deceased was removed from the well by the fire force and an inquest was drawn up. A post-mortem conducted on the body by Dr Radhakrishnan of Kottayam Medical College found abrasions on the right shoulder and hip and two small lacerations above the right ear. There was no sign of sexual assault. Despite the potentially significant injuries, the death was ruled a drowning.
The series of inquiries by various investigating bodies that followed was lengthy, convoluted and unsatisfactory, plagued by internal conflict, bitter rivalries and allegations of corruption and bias, compounded by pressure from many quarters to bring the case to conclusion.
In April 1992 the Crime Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department took up the case, and months later ruled Sister Abhaya's death a suicide. However, the Crime Branch was alleged to have destroyed crucial material evidence potentially implicating homicide as a cause of death.
In April 1995, forensic medical experts Dr S K Pathak, Dr Mahesh Verma and Dr S R Singh conducted dummy experiments leading them to conclude cause of death to be homicide .
Nevertheless, no arrests were made until November 2008.
After years of failed investigations and internal struggles, two priests – Thomas Kottur, Jose Puthurukkayil and a nun – Sister Sephy – were arrested by the CBI under Nandan Kumar Nair on 19 November 2008. All three suspects were granted bail in early January 2009.
On 17 July 2009, the three were charged with murder, defamation and destruction of evidence. Prosecutors alleged that Sister Abhaya had stumbled upon the two priests and one sister in a "compromising position" and had subsequently been attacked with an axe and dumped in the well.
After a 28 year-long investigation, on 22 December 2020, the CBI court found Fr. Kottoor and Sr. Sephy to be guilty of the murder of Sr. Abhaya. They were sentenced to life imprisonment on 23 December 2020.
(with inputs from IANS)
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