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INDIA: 10 years impunity for Convent well murder of young nun

May 10, 2002

URGENT ACTION URGENT ACTION URGENT ACTION URGENT ACTION URGENT ACTION
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ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAM
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10 May 2002
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UA-18-2002: 10 years impunity for Convent well murder of young nun
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INDIA - Impunity for murder
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There is an astounding case regarding a decade of justice denied in Kerala state of India. The 21 year-old body of Sr. Abhaya was found at the bottom of a Convent well in 1992. The Church authorities claimed that it was suicide, but police investigations and repeated High Court decisions have concluded that the case is undoubtedly murder. But to date, the Church authorities are still yet to even be questioned, despite five investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Many actions have been taken by a Citizens Action Council for full investigation of the case, but the investigation never reaches the Church authorities. We are requesting you to write to the Church authorities directly in this case, to urge them to speak, to tell what they know about the murder of this young nun, for the sake of the girl's family and for the sake of justice.
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We are reporting this very serious matter to our network as a good outcome about this case can positively affect the Church in Kerala and may help establish a better human rights situation there. Due to the nature of the case and its history, we are furnishing you with a complete report of the case at the bottom of this appeal. Some background as well as sample letters are included here first for your action.
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BACKGROUND
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This is one of many cases in India in which the influential members of the community are provided with impunity by the police. You would be aware from our previous appeals that Dalits are often denied justice because of the influence of higher caste perpetrators on the police. Similarly, advasis (indigenous peoples) are frequently abused by landowners, who enjoy impunity, and many workers find their complaints ignored by police who favour the local business elite. This case completes the picture, as it is clear that the police have not been willing to take action against the Church leaders - who have a great deal of influence in Kerala state - in this case of murder. The police inaction has continued for 10 years, despite the pleas of the impoverished family members, the local community and even the High Court, which has acted in an exemplary manner in this case to try to push the police to investigate and prosecute properly.
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SUGGESTED ACTION
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Please write to the Bishop and the head of the St. Thomas Convent, asking them to publicly explain the facts of this case, as their initial explanation of suicide has proved unfounded.
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SAMPLE LETTER 1
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Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry
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Catholic Bishop's House
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P.B No. 71
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KOTTAYAM 686001
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Kerala, INDIA
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PHONE: +91 481-563527,563812,300453
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FAX: +91 481-563327
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E-mail cbhktym@hotmail.com, cbhktym@vsnl.com
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Dear Bishop Kunnacherry
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RE: SR. ABHAYA'S MURDER
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As you are aware, the death of Sr. Abhaya in 1992 has been found to be a murder by the criminal investigation authorities after several years of investigation. However, the identity of the murderers remains a mystery as evidence has not been forthcoming about how the murder took place inside the Convent and how the body was thrown into the Convent well.
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You were both the Bishop under whose charge this Convent came and also the Patron of this diocesan congregation. You owe a duty to everyone to speak out and support a very open inquiry into this matter. This is especially so because initially the Convent and Church authorities had claimed that the death was suicide. This has now been proven false. Why such a false view was put forward needs explanation.
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Sister Abhaya¡¦s family needs to have her daughter¡¦s name cleared. The gravity of the matter demands that you speak out. The example of the Pope's recent openness regarding the American sex abuse cases is one you may follow, as this case of murder is equally serious. With your encouragement, the case is likely to be resolved in a positive manner.
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Yours sincerely
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SAMPLE LETTER 2
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Sr. Lisieu SJC
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St. Thomas Convent
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Kidangoor P.O
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KOTTAYAM 686572
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Kerala, INDIA
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PHONE: +91 482-254059
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Dear Sister
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RE: SR. ABHAYA'S MURDER
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You were the Superior of the Convent at the time of Sister Abhaya¡¦s death, which the criminal investigation authorities have found to be a murder. Initially, your Convent took the position that this was a suicide and now it has been proven false. The investigations as to who the murderer/s were have been hindered by the absence of a complete explanation by those responsible for the Convent.
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I urge you to speak on this murder which took place in the Convent under your charge and to do all you can to bring the culprits to justice. You also bear a responsibility to clear the good name of the dearly departed nun under your charge and that of her family. I hope you will have the courage to act in a just manner on this very important issue.
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Yours sincerely
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FACTS OF THE CASE
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SR. ABHAYA'S MURDER: A JOURNEY INTO THE DARK
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Sr.Abhaya, 21 years old in 1992, daughter of Mr. M. Thomas, Aykarakunnel house, Areekara, Kottayam district, Kerala, in South India was a member of St. Joseph's Congregation for women under the Catholic diocese of Kottayam, Kerala State. The bishop of the diocese is Mar Kuriakose Kunnasserry.
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Sr. Abhaya in 1992 was a 2nd year student of the pre-university course in B.C.M. college, at Kottayam which belonged to the diocese of Kottayam and she was a resident of St. Pius Xth Convent which is situated in the heart of the city of Kottayam. The above Convent also provided lodging and boarding for university girl students. Abhaya was of good habits, normal behaviour, maintained healthy and cordial friendship with all the inmates and absolutely had no mental disorder or any psychological aberration.
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On March 27, 1992 in the early hours of the day, Abhaya was found dead in the well of the Convent where she was living. There was no convincing answer from any quarter for the mysterious death of Abhaya. What people gathered from the nuns of the Convent was that she (Abhaya) had committed suicide due to mental insanity.
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The parents of Abhaya were economically very poor and had no political or social influence to pursue the matter. However, the public who really believed that it was a MURDER, formed an Action Council on March 31st, 1992 and sent an SOS to all concerned - the Chief Minister of the state, the Prime Minister, the President, the Chief Justice of the High Court, the Director General of Police and so on - demanding prosecution of the culprits for the murder of Abhaya. The local police who first investigated the matter could not bring out any evidence to prove murder.
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Because of the consistent and persistent representations by the Action Council, the Director General of Police of Kerala on 7.4.92 directed the Crime Branch section of the Kerala police to take up the investigation from the local police. the Crime Branch submitted its report before the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (RDO) on 30.1.1993, according to which Abhaya had committed suicide. The Crime Branch had nothing more to say than what was explained by the nuns in the beginning.
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In the meantime, the Action Council had approached the High Court of Kerala, invoking its special jurisdiction in a Writ petition for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the highest investigating agency in India. The CBI started investigating the death of Abhaya on 29.3.1993 under the direct supervision of one of its best officers Mr. Varghese P. Thomas, the then Deputy Superintendent of CBI.
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While the CBI investigation was in progress, Mr. K.T. Michael, the Superintendent of Crime Branch, who initially investigated and reported the death of Abhaya as &quot;suicide&quot;, obtained written permission from the RDO to take possession of Sr. Abhaya's personal articles - her veil, chappels, personal diary and such other personal goods that are of high evidenciary value from the RDO court. The whereabouts of all those items are not known.
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Surprisingly, on 30.12.1993, Mr. Varghese P. Thomas resigned from the service of CBI and from the investigation of Abhaya's death. He had seven more years in service to retire. Mr. Varghese P.Thomas was a brilliant and honest police officer and for his meritorious services he was awarded the prestigious President's National Medal. He had finally arrived at the conclusion that Abhaya's death was a clear case of MURDER and he had recorded it as such in the CBI Diary. Subsequently on 19.1.1994, he called a special press conference in Cochin and announced that he had resigned from CBI as his conscience did not permit him to comply with a strong directive given by his superior officer, Mr. V. Thyagarajan, the then Superintendent of CBI Cochin Unit, who had asked Mr. Varghese P. Thomas to record the death of Abhaya as SUICIDE in the CBI Diary. With this press conference, the case of Sr.Abhaya caught media attention all over the country and the matter was strongly debated in the pa
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rliament as well as in the State Assembly on several occasions.
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The Action Council filed another Writ petition in the Kerala High Court asking the court to remove Mr. V. Thyagarajan from Cochin Unit of the CBI as well as from the investigation of Abhaya's death. Further on 3.6.1994 all the MPs from Kerala State jointly submitted a passionate petition to K. Vijaya Rama Rao, the Director of the CBI requesting him to disallow Mr. Thyagarajan to continue in the Abhaya's murder case. As a result Mr. M.L. Sharma, the Joint Director of the CBI, was given charge of the investigation into Abhaya's death.
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The role of Mr. V. Thyagarajan in the distortion of Abhaya's case was apparent in the High Court when Mr. Varghese P. Thomas produced an original copy of a report sent by Mr. V. Thyagarajan to the Joint Director of the CBI suggesting that further investigation into the death of Sr. Abhaya should be dropped, despite the death being recorded in the CBI Diary as MURDER by Varghese P.Thomas after due consideration of the material facts of the case. As a result, Mr. Thyagarajan was transferred to Chennai Unit of CBI.
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On the 7.4.1995, using a full-sized dummy of Sr. Abhaya, the CBI made some experimental tests in the well where her corpse was found. By that time, on 17.4.1995 Dr. S.K. Patak, the chief of the Forensic Department of Saiman Singh Medical college, Jaipur and Dr. Mahesh Varma, former chairperson of Anatomy Section submitted their formal expert report to the CBI investigation team to the effect that Sr. Abhaya's death was clearly MURDER. Subsequently the CBI declared that the killers would soon be arrested.
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But nothing happened. No-one was arrested. The investigation itself was limping without a clear aim before then. Hence the Action Council staged a dharna (protest meeting) in front of the CBI office at Cochin on 27.11.1995 against the callousness of the CBI and its lack of orientation. Later on 18.3.1996 another big rally was organised under the leadership of the former chief minister of the state, Mr. E.K. Nayanar, in front of the state secretariate, at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala. Again on 1.7.1996 the Action Council filed a petition in the High Court challenging the inaction of the CBI. The High Court passed an order in the petition on 20.8.1996 directing the CBI to complete its investigation in three months from the date of the order. In the meantime, the CBI declared an award of Rs 300,000 to whomsoever gives dependable evidence in the case of Abhaya.
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On 12.10.1996 all the MPs from Kerala State together visited the Prime Minister and jointly pleaded with him to expedite the CBI investigation into the death of Abhaya. However, on 6.12.1996 the CBI filed a petition in the Chief Judicial Magistrate's court, Ernakulam, Cochin seeking permission of the court to wind up its investigation in the matter. In response to that, the father of Sr.Abhaya, Mr. Thomas, filed a counter petition in the court on 18.1.1997 to dismiss the final report of the CBI and its recommendation for closure of investigation.
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The Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) directed the CBI in its order dated 20.3.1997 to re-investigate the case. The court in its order strongly criticized the CBI for its loyalty and complicity to certain vested interests to defeat the ends of justice and the court observed that the CBI had not made party some very significant persons who otherwise emerged in the facts of the case quite evidently. The court also asserted its belief that the case could have easily been established had there been an honest and proper investigation. Further the court took very serious exception to the role of the Crime Branch officers, mentioning Mr. K.T. Michael by name for the distorted course of investigation from the beginning.
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The Action Council, again on 30.5.1997 filed a Public Interest Litigation in the High Court of Kerala against the non-compliance of the CJM's directive for re-investigation. The High Court in its order directed the CBI to report back to the court the progress it had made in the investigation in ten days from the date of the order.
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Having been satisfied of the failure and lack of interest on the part of the CBI, the High Court directed suo moto the Director of the CBI to appoint a special team from New Delhi to investigate the matter. Thus Mr. P.D. Meena, the Superintendent of the CBI from New Delhi and his team undertook a month-long investigation and reported to the High Court. The CBI was satisfied that the death of Abhaya was in fact MURDER. However, the CBI report said that due to lack of evidence it was not possible to go further into the matter. The High Court again on 28.9.1998 directed the CBI to file its final report of the re-investigation on or before 12.10.1998.
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There has been no progress in the matter till date. Altogether there were five CBI inquiries into the case so far without any tangible results. The CBI is convinced and the court has accepted that Sr. Ahabya was murdered. The CJM has noted and criticised the non-joinder of necessary parties. Everyone knows who are those &quot;necessary parties&quot;. But there has been not even an interrogation of those persons until date.
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*** Please send a copy of your letter to AHRC Urgent Appeals:
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Email: &lt;ua@ahrchk.org&gt;
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Fax: +(852) - 26986367
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Please contact the Urgent Appeals coordinator if you require more
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information or wish to report human rights violations.
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AHRC Urgent Appeals Programme
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Asian Human Rights Commission
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Unit D, 7th Floor, Mongkok Commercial Centre,
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16 - 16B Argyle Street, Kowloon, HONGKONG
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Tel: +(852) - 2698-6339
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E-mail: ua@ahrchk.org
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Please contact the AHRC Urgent Appeals Coordinator if you require further information or to make requests for further appeals.
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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.