Monday, January 19, 2009

A murder case that confounded investigators now haunts judges

The Abhaya murder case has confounded criminal investigating agencies for 17 years. It has now sown dissension in the judiciary.

Recently two judges of the high court voiced seemingly conflicting views on the case, prompting the Central Bureau of Investigation to seek clarifications. Some injudicious observations that emerged from the bench while all this was going on have invited criticism from within the legal fraternity as well as from outside.

Sister Abhaya, a second year pre-degree student, was found dead in a well in the compound of a convent in Kottayam in March 1992. Successive teams of investigators sought to write off the case as one of suicide, but public opinion mobilised by an action council, headed by a social worker, Jomon Puthenpurackal, frustrated their efforts.

The action council and Abhaya’s parents alleged that the Catholic Church was trying to protect the persons responsible for the murder in the convent.

From the local police, the case was transferred first to the Crime branch of the State police and then to the Central Bureau of Investigation. One after another four CBI teams investigated the case.

Varghese P Thomas, deputy superintendent of police, who headed the first CBI team, concluded that Abhaya was murdered. Shortly afterwards he quit the agency alleging his superior had been putting pressure on him to close the case as one of suicide.

From time to time reports surfaced about manipulation of records and destruction of evidence. As the investigation dragged on for years without tangible results and a magistrate observed that unseen hands were obstructing the investigation, many wondered if the truth would ever come out.

Each time the unseen hands appeared to be succeeding, Jomon Puthenpurackal moved the courts. He appeared before the courts so often that one judge ordered that he be barred as a vexatious litigant.

Eventually, the high court began to monitor the investigation closely. Dissatisfied with the work of a team from outside, last year the court entrusted the investigation to the agency’s unit in the State.

The new team, the fourth deputed by the CBI, decided to subject to narco analysis three suspects as well as the State police official. Relying on the narco analysis report, it arrested two priests, Father Thomas Kottoor and Father Jose Puthrikayal, and a nun, Sister Sephi on November 19.

The Catholic Church immediately raised a howl of protest, alleging the CBI had arrested innocent persons to appease public opinion. It organised public protests and called upon the faithful to pray for the arrested persons.

Former Supreme Court judge KT Thomas deplored use of narco analysis, an investigating method which the developed nations have given up. Former State police chief KJ Joseph also joined the Christian chorus against the CBI.

On December 31, Justice K. Hema, while granting bail to the three accused, picked holes in the CBI investigation. She ordered that “a more competent officer” must supervise the investigation.

On an application by the CBI, Justice R Basant, who was monitoring the investigation, clarified that Justice Hema’s order did not hamper continued investigation by the present team.

While dealing with another case the next day, Justice Hema took umbrage at a fellow judge clarifying her order. This prompted Justice Basant to ask the chief justice to entrust monitoring of the investigation to a division bench.

With television channels instantly reporting the judges’ remarks and soliciting comments, the open airing of differing views developed into a major public controversy. Kerala Kaumudi daily, in an editorial, sharply criticised Justice Hema’s order.

Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, responding to questions, told the media it was not a good precedent for judges to clarify their own orders. At the same time, he pointed out it was not unusual for two judges to express different views.

The High Court Advocates Association adopted a resolution voicing deep concern and anguish over the tendency among judges to comment on issues unconnected with the matter before them.

Justice Balakrishnan and the Advocates Association mentioned no names, the words they used clearly implied disapproval of Justice Hema’s conduct.

Young members of a left-wing group staged a demonstration outside the court against grant of bail to the Abhaya case accused. They burnt an effigy of Justice Hema.

The high court will decide today (Monday) on whether or not to proceed against Kerala Kaumudi for contempt. Advocate General Sudhakar Prasad has advised against it.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 19, 2009.

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