An Afghan-Canadian businessman charged with killing three of his teen-aged daughters and his first wife was keen on women getting an education and making their way in the world, and the dead wife had voiced no concerns about abuse in the family, his murder trial was told Monday by his younger half-sister.
All appeared well, Farida Nayebkheil testified – an opinion much at odds with the prosecution's depiction of a dysfunctional, male-dominated household ruled by a violent patriarch, Mohammad Shafia, whose temper terrified his children.
Why then – after the daughters died in a drowning incident – would Mr. Shafia have referred to them on a police wiretap as “whores,” Ms. Nayebkheil was asked, in reference to cellphone photos of the two eldest sisters, scantily clad and with boyfriends.
By every account, including that of his co-accused second wife, the pictures enraged Mr. Shafia when he discovered them, supposedly after the daughters died.
“You don’t know where he got the insight that a woman wearing a bikini made her a whore?” prosecutor Laurie Lacelle asked Ms. Nayebkheil.
An expatriate Afghan who now lives in Denmark and had had little direct contact with her brother for years until the deaths, Ms. Nayebkheil had no explanation.
Nor had she ever heard of the concept of “honour killing,” she added, a notion at the heart of the case against Mr. Shafia, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their eldest son, Hamed.
“You don’t really know about the beliefs your brother has do you?” Ms. Lacelle said.
In similar testimony, Mr. Shafia’s half-brother, Mohammad Anwar Yaqubi, a doctor who lives in the Netherlands and who also journeyed to Canada to testify for the defence, said that until this trial he too had never heard of honour killings.
But his links with his brother also appeared tenuous. He said he didn’t hear about the four deaths until a couple of weeks after they took place.
In earlier testimony on Monday, Ms. Yahya ended six days in the witness box struggling to explain the contents of a wiretap four days before the trio were charged.
A police ruse about a camera at a Rideau Canal lock where the four victims were found drowned 2 1/2 years ago should have been good news for the three defendants, she was told.
Instead, as police surreptitiously listened in on a wiretap, the trio responded with dismay, voicing cautious hope the story about the camera was a trick.
“Why were you so hopeful the police were lying?” co-prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis asked Ms. Yahya as he wrapped up his lengthy cross-examination. “Why weren’t you relieved?”
They were worried, Ms. Yahya replied, because although she and the others deny killing their four relatives at the Kingston Mills locks that night, they had by then realized they had in fact been there before, but had failed to tell police that because they hadn’t recognized the spot.
Some of Ms. Yahya’s wiretapped comments were re-read to the big courtroom, where, as usual, every seat was taken.
“There was no camera, they’re lying,” she told her co-accused as they drove back to their Montreal home, four days before they were arrested, after being lured down to Kingston so detectives could install the listening device in their Pontiac van.
“If there had been a camera they would have taken it out on the first day. It’s been 20 days now.”
Her co-accused husband agreed.
“They’re lying,” Mohammad Shafia is heard saying on the wiretap. “If there was a camera they would have accessed it in a minute.”
Mr. Laarhuis itemized numerous gaps and inconsistencies in Ms. Yahya’s varied statements before and after her arrest.
In particular, he dwelled on one police interview in which she agreed – in a statement retracted the next day – that she and the other two defendants had indeed been at the locks the night the four family members perished.
Ms. Yahya reiterated that she was just telling the officer what she thought he wanted to hear.
“He was imagining everything, the same way you have been imagining everything,” she said. Several of the jurors suppressed smiles.
Ms. Yahya, 42, her husband, 59, and their eldest son, Hamed, 21, are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder. The deaths were “honour killings,” the prosecution alleges, committed primarily to expunge disgrace brought upon the family by the conduct of the victims.
On June 30, 2009, the drowned bodies of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, respectively, were discovered in a Nissan Sentra submerged at Kingston Mills Locks, which connects the Rideau Canal to the Cataraqui River and Lake Ontario. Also in the car was Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, Mr. Shafia’s first wife, who helped raise the seven children in a clandestine polygamous marriage that had it been discovered, would likely have led to the family’s deportation from Canada.
The defendants insist a tragic accident took place, but from the first hours of the investigation detectives suspected murder.
The accused insist the Nissan ended up in the lock when Zainab and the other three borrowed it for a late-night spin, as the family stayed at a Kingston motel after a short holiday in Niagara Falls.
The prosecution, however, contends that the Nissan was pushed into the lock by a Lexus SUV, the second vehicle in which the 10-member family was travelling.
The trial resumes Tuesday.