In a back-and-forth exchange that electrified a packed courtroom, a Canadian-Afghan entrepreneur accused of murdering three of his teenaged daughters and his first wife denied the charge, but nonetheless insisted that what had happened was God’s will, and that the four women deserved to die.
“You believe their actions brought about their rightful deaths, don’t you?” Mohammad Shafia was asked by prosecutor Laurie Lacelle, who hammered him with questions to which he seemed to have few convincing answers.
“Yes,” Mr. Shafia replied.
But he said he took no part in the June, 2009 drowning deaths of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, together with that of Rona Amir Mohammad, 52. The latter was ostensibly Mr. Shafia’s cousin but was in fact his first wife, living with the rest of the family in Montreal, in a clandestine polygamous marriage.
Ms. Lacelle pressed him.
“You believe there’s no value in life without honour, don’t you?” she said.
“My honour is important to me,” Mr. Shafia replied, alternately sorrowful and truculent, speaking in his native Dari and sometimes wagging his finger at the prosecutor as his jointly accused second wife and son gazed intently at him from the glass-walled prisoner’s box. “But you can’t regain your honour with murder – respected lady, you must know that.”
Not until after the four perished did he realize how scandalous his daughters’ conduct had been, he said, manifested in lying, stealing and flirting with boys. Until then, he testified, it was only the eldest, Zainab, who worried him.
When he did learn, it was clear God had delivered retribution – but not through him.
“How is it possible to do this to your family?” Mr. Shafia asked rhetorically. No religion anywhere sanctions such a deed, he said. “I’m a strict Muslim but I’m not a killer.”
“You might do it if you thought they were whores,” Ms. Lacelle shot back.
Mr. Shafia, 59, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their eldest son Hamed, 20, have each pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder. The charges were laid three weeks after the four drowned bodies were discovered in a car submerged in a lock on the Rideau Canal, east of Kingston. In varying accounts of events, the defendants told police a tragic accident had somehow taken place – but detectives suspected murder almost from the outset.
Ms. Lacelle pelted Mr. Shafia with difficult questions.
The deaths occurred in the early hours of June 30, while the 10-member family was returning to their Montreal home from a vacation in Niagara Falls, travelling in two cars.
And on June 27, cellphone records show, Hamed’s phone was in the area of the Kingston Mills locks where the drowning deaths occurred, supporting the prosecution’s claim that an early reconnaissance mission was under way.
Mohammad Shafia told the jury Friday that it was, in fact, he who had the phone, heading for Montreal before turning back to Niagara Falls, and that he was travelling alone. But a day after the arrests, he told police that Hamed was with him at the time.
“On the 27th I was alone,” he insisted in court.
Nor could Mr. Shafia explain why he had failed to tell police that he and his family had twice before visited the locks in 2008. Ms. Lacelle, however, offered a theory.
“You didn’t want the police to know you’d been here before because you knew it would look suspicious,” she said.
There was also disagreement about whether the four victims ever made it to the Kingston motel where the others stayed that night. Mr. Shafia insisted they did, though no one else has ever reported seeing them there.
The prosecution’s theory is that Mr. Shafia and Hamed rented the two hotel rooms, where they parked their three younger children, headed the short distance back out to the lock where Ms. Yahya was waiting with the four soon-to-die victims, and that the trio drowned them there, placing the bodies in one of the cars and then tipping it into the lock with the other vehicle.
Mr. Shafia’s story is that Ms. Yahya had waited in the dark with the four somewhere – the exact whereabouts has never been established – before she and the others rejoined her husband and son at the motel.
But how she managed to locate them has never been clear, and Mr. Shafia gave police three different explanations.
And how to explain the defendants’ wiretapped conversations in which they were overheard worrying about a camera that was supposedly in place at the lock that night (a police ruse)?
They should have been happy to learn that the cause of their daughters’ dreadful deaths might now come to light, Ms. Lacelle said. But on that wiretap, Ms. Yahya is heard saying: “If God forbid, there was a camera, all three of us would be on it.”
Mr. Shafia told the trial that he really had hoped such a camera was in place. “It would have made me happy and we would not be in this trouble,” he said.
Perhaps most puzzling was his account of events at the motel, when the girls’ parents supposedly awoke around 7 a.m. on June 30 to find one of the cars gone: Zainab and the other three had apparently taken it for a late-night joyride and vanished.
But for several hours they made no effort to tell anyone. At around noon, the trio went to Kingston police to report the disappearance, but before that they didn’t call 911 or make inquiries with the hotel staff.
Mr. Shafia told the trial he was waiting for Hamed to return from a mysterious overnight trip to Montreal and back before contacting authorities, because his English was not adequate. Yet in one of the two motel rooms, the other Shafia children, who spoke good English, were left sleeping.
The prosecution alleges the deaths were “honour killings,” chiefly committed to cleanse the Shafia family’s reputation, supposedly sullied by the immoral conduct of the two oldest dead sisters.
As for a motive in allegedly murdering Ms. Mohammad, Mr. Shafia’s first wife, the jury has been asked to weigh two possible factors.
She had married her husband in 1978 and had been with him ever since, helping to raise his seven children, all of whom were born to Ms. Yahya. But she had long been abused by the accused, it’s alleged, her diary entered as a court exhibit, and her fictitious status as an aunt posed a potential risk to the family’s residency in Canada, where polygamy is illegal.
The trial resumes Monday, when two of Mr. Shafia’s other children are expected to testify by video.