The cross-examination of a key defence witness in a murder trial wrapped up Wednesday with the young man conceding that portions of his court testimony differed significantly from earlier statements he had made to police. The lead prosecutor made plain his view as to why.
“Where your memory has improved, it’s all to the benefit of your Mom, your Dad and Hamed, isn’t it?” Gerard Laarhuis asked the witness, in reference to the three Afghan-Canadian defendants on trial for what is alleged to have been a clutch of carefully planned but clumsily executed “honour killings.”
Numerous discrepancies were cited, including the witness’s remarkable claim at the trial that he was very likely the author of an incriminating Google inquiry on his father’s laptop about how to commit murder.
“All these new memories you now have, you never talked to police about any of them, did you?” Mr. Laarhuis asked.
The witness, whose identity is under a court-ordered publication ban, replied that he had merely been answering whatever questions had been put to him by police, and that “I can’t tell you the story of my life.”
Mr. Laarhuis got the 18-year-old witness – the fifth of seven children born to the two parents on trial – to agree that four of the siblings had at different times been depressed or suicidal during the two years they had spent in Canada, and that at one point one of his sisters had asked him to get them poison so they could kill themselves.
But he rejected the prosecutor’s suggestion that he might be covering up his parents’ alleged crimes.
“You mean that I helped in the murders?” he asked, a choice of words at odds with the defence position that there had in fact been no murder, but rather a tragic accident. “I absolutely would not do something like that.”
Charged with four counts of first-degree murder are Mohammad Shafia, 59, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42, and their eldest son Hamed, who turns 21 this month.
The trio stands accused of drowning three of the couple’s daughters, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti, aged 19, 17 and 13, together with Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52. She lived in Montreal with the rest of the 10-member family in a clandestine polygamous marriage.
The four victims’ bodies were discovered June 30, 2009, in a submerged car at the bottom of a Rideau Canal lock, east of Kingston. The group had been returning home from a short vacation in Niagara Falls, travelling in two cars.
Police suspected murder almost from the outset, the alleged motive chiefly being an effort to purify the family’s “honour,” supposedly stained by the independent-minded conduct of the rebellious teenagers.
The cross-examination concluded with a short but dramatic slide show, addressing the witness’s claim that the Montreal household in which the family lived was a mostly happy place, and that his parents did not, for instance, enforce a strict dress code.
Never had he seen any of his sisters wearing a hijab, the Muslim head scarf, he said.
The screen then flashed ID photographs of three of his sisters – Zainab, Sahar and another sister, all wearing hijabs.
“You want to change your testimony now?” Mr. Laarhuis asked.
“No, I honestly never saw them wearing hijabs,” was the reply.
Then came the third defence witness presented by Mohammad Shafia’s lawyer, Peter Kemp: Giving testimony was one of Ms. Yahya’s 10 brothers, Jawad Hoayom, with whom Ms. Mohammad stayed in Germany before she rejoined the rest of the family in Montreal in 2007.
She was in good spirits, constantly chatting to the children on the phone, and while she was there her husband sent her several thousand dollars, Mr. Hoayom testified, his evidence translated by a Farsi-speaking interpreter.
But under cross-examination, he contradicted one of the many contested statements made Tuesday by the Shafia sibling who had just completed his evidence.
On Tuesday, the young witness told the jury he had no idea his father had two wives, and that he had always believed Ms. Mohammad to be his aunt.
In fact, her status was an open secret within the family, Mr. Hoayom, a former Customs officer, told the court.
“Everybody knew that.”
As well, he acknowledged that in parts of rural Afghanistan, “honour killings” take place.
“Yes, it has happened.”
But such things are both unjustified and rare, he said.
More usually, when young women break the family rules, “if they don’t listen, we expel them.”
He praised his brother-in-law, saying he had a good reputation.
And so too did the final defence witness testifying on Mr. Shafia’s behalf. Abdul Rahim Amanzay, a long-time friend and business partner of the accused, called him “a good, decent man, always an honest person.”
And he still believes that, he testified.
With that testimony, the trial broke for Christmas.
When it resumes on Jan. 9, lawyers for the other two defendants will begin presenting their case.