In poignant testimony that went to the heart of the prosecution case against three people accused of committing multiple “honour killings,” the former boyfriend of one of the victims told of a clandestine, Romeo-and-Juliet romance and a marriage in Montreal that lasted just one day – destroyed by her parents’ disapproval.
The witness, whose name is under a temporary publication ban, told the murder trial of Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their 20-year-old son Hamed that he first began courting the couple’s eldest daughter, Zainab, in February, 2008.
And it was evident from the outset, he said, that Hamed and the parents were implacably opposed to the relationship.
He recounted an e-mail he received from Zainab in which she warned him to beware of her brother.
“Let me explain the rules of my friendship, firstly be aware of my bro … I don’t want to give him the slightest idea we are friends,” she wrote.
The three accused are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the June, 2009, drowning deaths of Zainab Shafia, 19, her two younger sisters, Sahar and Geeti, aged 17 and 13 respectively, and Mohammad Shafia’s first wife in a secret polygamous marriage, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53.
The four bodies were found at the bottom of a Rideau Canal lock just east of Kingston as the 10-member family returned to their Montreal home from a short holiday in Niagara Falls, travelling in two cars.
Offering varying explanations, the three defendants insisted a terrible accident had occurred while they were staying overnight at a Kingston motel, but detectives were almost instantly suspicious and the prosecution thesis is that the killings were committed by the Shafias in a bid to salvage the family “honour,” supposedly sullied by the daughters’ immoral behaviour.
Rona Amir Mohammad had rejoined the family after they immigrated to Canada in 2007, ostensibly as Mr. Shafia’s cousin, and it’s alleged she was murdered as the final act of a long-simmering rivalry between the two wives.
Police concluded an elaborate but clumsy accident was staged at the Kingston Mills locks, and that the submerged Nissan, under darkness and with considerable difficulty, had been pushed into a small, box-shaped section of the lock by the family’s second car, a Lexus.
In earlier evidence Monday, the jury saw revealing photographs of the two oldest sisters, scantily clad in lingerie and swimsuits, found on their cellphones after their bodies were discovered. Pictures of their boyfriends were also discovered, and printed copies of some of the photos were later found among the property of the accused – in the Lexus and in a suitcase belonging to Hamed Shafia.
All four women drowned, autopsies showed, but where and when has never been clear. Three of the victims had fresh bruises on their heads, and one of the car windows was wide open, leading police to believe they were dead before the Nissan plunged into the water.
Zainab’s former boyfriend told the trial Monday he and she were high-school sweethearts and that their relationship was under pressure from the beginning from her family, who disapproved of his social standing and Pakistani heritage.
He once visited her at her Montreal family home, he told the trial, but had to be hustled out to the garage when her brother Hamed unexpectedly showed up.
But Hamed found him lurking there and sent him away. After that, Zainab was not allowed to leave the house, even to attend school, for months.
She and the boyfriend nonetheless stayed in touch, and finally in April, 2009, he helped Zainab move to a women’s shelter in Montreal. She stayed there for two weeks but was persuaded by her mother, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, to move back home, on the day that her father returned to Canada from one of his many business trips abroad.
Seemingly the mother was now on her daughter’s side, and in May, 2009 – five weeks before the four victims perished – the two young people took Islamic wedding vows in a Montreal mosque.
But the wedding was never registered with Quebec authorities, and one day later, during what was supposed to be a celebration in a restaurant, it was dissolved by the same imam who had performed it. This was done by Zainab’s husband pronouncing, “I divorce you” three times.
The marriage ended because no one from the groom’s family showed up, the former boyfriend told the trial, and his new wife’s family had reverted to their former hostility.
Zainab was heartbroken, he said, and he recounted her tearfully telling him why she had to change her mind: “I cannot do this. I cannot leave my family and ruin their reputation.”
Two weeks later, she sent him another clandestine, abbreviation-filled e-mail, in which she wrote: “One thing that I’m really happy about is that it was my dream to marry u n I did it … we had an amazing love story together … ur wife and best friend Zainab.”
The Shafias have three other children, who were placed in care after their parents’ arrest. All seven siblings were the biological children of Tooba Mohammad Yahya.
The witness will be cross-examined by the defence when the trial resumes Tuesday morning.