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NEW DELHI (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a landmark case, the Delhi High Court has condemned a virginity test conducted on a religious sister who was charged with murdering a fellow nun after an affair with two priests.
The virginity test is "sexist" and violates the "human right to dignity" of a female detainee, Justice Swarana Kanta Sharma ruled on Feb. 8, in response to a petition filed by Sr. Sephy from Kerala, a south Indian state where the church traces its apostolic roots to St. Thomas.
In a 57-page ruling obtained by Church Militant, the judge declared that the "abhorrent" and "sexist" virginity test" is unconstitutional and in violation of Article 21 of the [Indian] Constitution which includes [the] right to dignity" and personal liberty.
The virginity test, conducted by the insertion of two fingers into the vagina, is "one of the most unscientific methods of examination used in the context of sexual assault and has no forensic value," Justice Sharma stated.
It "violates the right of the victim to privacy, physical and mental integrity and dignity" and has no scientific basis in proving or disproving allegations of sexual intercourse or rape but instead "re-victimizes and re-traumatizes women," the judge emphasized.
Sister Sephy had petitioned the court to "punish the errant officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation" who had forced her to undergo a virginity test "against her own free will" and leaked the "result of the test to the media."
The nun also demanded "exemplary compensation" for the mental agony, torture and humiliation she underwent because of being forcibly subjected to the virginity test.
In what is known to be the longest-running murder investigation in the state of Kerala, Sr. Sephy and Fr. Thomas Kottoor were found guilty of the murder of Sr. Abhaya — a 21-year-old Catholic nun — in December 2020.
Sister Abhaya, a novice belonging to the St. Joseph's Congregation, was found dead in a well filled with water at the St. Pius X Convent in Kottayam, Kerala, on March 27, 1992.
Kerala police initially ruled that the case was a suicide. After a series of legal battles and a petition to the government from 67 nuns from Sr. Abhaya's congregation to treat it as a homicide, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation in 1993.
In 2008, the CBI charged Fr. Thomas Kottoor, Fr. Jose Puthurukkayil and Sr. Sephy under Section 302 (murder) and Section 201 (destruction of evidence) of the Indian Penal Code.
Prosecutors alleged that Sr. Abhaya had caught Kottoor, Puthurukkayil and Sephy in a "compromising position" in the kitchen of the St. Pius X Convent.
Fearing that she would expose them, Kottoor allegedly strangled Abhaya while Sephy attacked her with an axe. Together, they allegedly dumped Sr. Abhaya's body in the well in the convent's compound to make it look like a suicide.
In 2018, Fr. Puthurukkayil was discharged due to a lack of evidence, but on Dec. 22, 2020, the CBI court found Kottoor and Sephy guilty of the murder of Sr. Abhaya and sentenced them to life imprisonment after a 28-year-long investigation.
The court judgment stated that Kottoor had admitted to another person that he was having an illicit relationship with Sephy. The nun also admitted to her sexual activity.
A petty thief named "Adakka" Raju, who had entered the convent to steal, gave eyewitness testimony and said he saw two men entering the convent on the night of the murder, one of whom he identified as Fr. Kottoor.
A critical piece of evidence used to convict Sephy was the virginity test, which was used to determine that she had lost her virginity as a result of sexual intercourse with the priests.
Sephy said she had been taken in Nov. 2008 to Alappuzha Medical College where she was forced to sign a "consent form," and two female doctors from the forensic science department and a gynecologist from the Government Medical College subjected her to a virginity test.
When the test proved that her hymen was intact, the CBI fabricated a story claiming that the nun had undergone surgery to suture her hymen (hymenoplasty). Sr. Sephy said that the CBI leaked the fake results to the media in an attempt to defame her.
In 2009, Sephy approached the National Human Rights Commission with a petition that claimed her fundamental rights were violated because the virginity test was conducted "against her free will."
In her judgment, Justice Sharma acknowledged that the test conducted on the nun 16 years after the homicide was "malafide" and "was intended to humiliate the petitioner and substantiate the false case in which the petitioner was implicated."
Moreover, the facility for conducting "hymenoplasty" was not available in India or in any other Asian country at the time; the petitioner did not even have a passport, and she has not traveled abroad so far, the judge ruled.
But even assuming that the motive attributed to Sephy for committing the alleged murder is true, there is no justification for subjecting the nun to a virginity test "as the outcome of the test will not prove the motive or the offence in question," Justice Sharma clarified.
In June 2022, both Sr. Sephy and Fr. Kottoor were granted bail, and their life sentences were terminated by the high court.