The murder trial of three Afghan-Canadians accused of drowning four relatives in a so-called “honour killing” came to a cathartic end Sunday afternoon as the defendants were convicted on all charges.
Before the trio were led away in handcuffs and shackles to begin automatic sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years, each proclaimed their innocence, and they were visibly upset.
Mr. Justice Robert Maranger of Superior Court was unmoved.
Their crimes stemmed from “a sick notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society,” he told the packed courtroom.
“You have each been convicted of the planned and deliberate murder of four members of your family,” the trial judge said, citing a verdict that was “clearly supported by the evidence presented at this trial.
“It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime. The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour, a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women.”
Staring hard at the defendants, the judge said:
“There is nothing more honourless than the deliberate murder of, in the case of Mohammad Shafia, three of his daughters and his wife, in the case of Tooba Yahya, three of her daughters and a stepmother to all her children, in the case of Hamed Shafia, three of his sisters and a mother.”
Half an hour later, a large crowd gathered under a cold sun to watch as businessman Mohammad Shafia, 59, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42, and their eldest son, Hamed, 21, were for the last time taken away in a police van. Boos rang out as they were led from the courthouse.
The verdict was reached shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon and delivered about an hour later.
In all, the seven-woman, five-man jury had deliberated just over 15 hours, spread over two days, sequestered on the second floor of the historic Frontenac County Court House in downtown Kingston.
After the proceedings ended, defence lawyer David Crowe said he was “disappointed” with the outcome and there would be an appeal.
Right to the end, the killers maintained they were not guilty.
“We are not criminals, we are not murderers, we didn't commit the murder and this is unjust,” Mr. Shafia said in Dari, his words relayed through a translator.
“Your honourable justice, this is not just,” his wife said through tears. “I am not a murderer, and I am a mother – a mother.”
Their son spoke in English: “Sir, I did not drown my sisters anywhere,” he said.
Mr. Shafia, Ms. Yahya and Hamed Shafia were convicted of murdering sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, whose bodies were found in a submerged car at a Rideau Canal lock, just east of Kingston, in June, 2009.
The fourth person in the vehicle was Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had entered Canada illegally, posing as his cousin, but who in fact was part of a polygamous marriage and who by every indication had desperately wanted to escape from it.
The trial attracted enormous attention, the chief reason being that in the history of Canada, and probably every other Western country, it was unique.
There have been other murder charges involving so-called “honour killings” – homicides of women slain out of a perverse desire to “purify” families of disgrace created by supposedly immoral conduct. But not on this scale, and not involving parents who were willing to wipe out half their family for the sake of their honour, and then lie about it.
Outside court, lead prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis said the guilty verdicts reflected Canadian values that he hoped would resonate.
“This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy,” Mr. Laarhuis said, amid cheers of approval from spectators.
Staff-Sgt. Chris Scott, who headed the widely praised Kingston Police investigation, said the prosecutors and court process had allowed the dead women to finally be heard.
“They gave these victims a voice when they had none,” he said.
The 10-member family – one husband, two wives, seven children who were all Ms. Yahya's progeny – settled in Montreal in 2007 after fleeing Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1992 and spending years in Pakistan, Australia and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
What linked the four victims, co-prosecutor Laurie Lacelle told the jury in her closing arguments, was their shared desire to break away from the constraints of the oppressive Shafia household, ruled with a rod of iron by Mr. Shafia, the ill-tempered, often violent family patriarch.
The defendants pleaded not guilty to what the prosecution contended was a carefully planned but clumsily executed quadruple murder, disguised as an accident, committed chiefly to cleanse the Shafia name and reputation of shame brought about by the victims’ rebellious conduct, particularly Zainab’s and Sahar’s interest in boys and dating.
The trial began Oct. 20 and in its final weeks it drew big crowds, often lining up well ahead of time for a spot in the 150-seat courtroom.
It was also expensive. A police source directly involved in the case estimated the final tab will run into millions of dollars.
Among the regulars was Kingston resident Barb Jagger, 52, who for a couple of weeks shared a cell with Ms. Yahya in the segregation block of Quinte Detention Centre, west of Kingston.
She recalls her cellmate as quiet, pleasant and evidently deeply religious. She would pray five times a day, Ms. Jagger said, and often read the Koran.
Ms. Yahya denied murdering anybody, Ms. Jagger said.
“She looked me in the eyes, she had tears streaming down her face, and she said to me: 'Barb, I didn't bring seven children into this world just to kill them.'"
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