For weeks, the jury in a murder trial has listened to prosecution evidence depicting the chief players as members of a violent, dysfunctional Montreal household ruled by a hot-tempered tyrant whose word was law.
But on Monday, a defence witness painted an utterly different picture in testimony and in a videotaped police interview, saying none of the core allegations about his father’s behaviour are true.
In the witness box all day – his identity shielded by court order – was one of the teenage sons of the Afghan-Canadian patriarch at the centre of the murder charges, businessman Mohammad Shafia, accused of plotting and orchestrating four “honour killings”.
The young man spoke confidently and smiled frequently, occasionally leavening his evidence with lighthearted asides, glancing at the jury as he did so. He said he had been monitoring media coverage of the trial, “and when I read all this stuff, I don’t even know the people.”
He agreed that, as in any other family, there had been disagreements, and his parents did have traditional opinions about how their children should comport themselves, particularly with members of the opposite sex.
But only once did he ever see his father strike any of his children (including himself, one night when he and two of his sisters had violated the curfew) and he said the blows were not hard.
On a scale measuring tolerance within Afghan households from 1 to 10, he said he would grade his home as an 8½.
No one was even especially religious, he testified. His mother and his “aunt” – in reality his father’s first wife – prayed five times a day in accordance with Islamic tenets, but none of the 10 family members went to the mosque often, if ever. Certainly he did not.
And above all, he said in his police interview with Det. Constable Sean Bambrick of Kingston police one day before his father, mother and brother were each charged with four counts of first-degree murder, he could not even fathom the idea of intra-familial murder.
“For a mother or a brother to do that would be sick, and that’s what tells me this didn’t happen,” he said. “Is there any proof? Any footprints?”
Mohammad Shafia, 59, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42, and their eldest son, Hamed, 20, are each charged with murder, in what the prosecution alleges was a carefully planned but bungled multiple killing designed to erase disgrace from the family name.
The bodies of teenage sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, 19, 17 and 13 respectively, and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, Mr. Shafia’s first wife, were found in a car submerged in a waterway lock, just east of Kingston, in June, 2009.
A few hours before the arrests, Monday’s witness and two of his sisters were removed from the family home – for their safety, they were told – and in the police interview, Det. Constable Bambrick tells the youth (then 15) that police believe his father, mother and brother are responsible for the four deaths.
That’s not possible, the teen responds calmly.
He concurred that his parents’ code of conduct was stricter than his, and that he did not share many of the values attached to their Afghan heritage. Nor should his father have lashed out on that one occasion, he said.
“He should never have laid a finger on any of them … but you would notice that with my dad, he couldn’t keep his emotions controlled.”
But as with almost everything else that brought authorities to the Shafias’ door, he said it had all been overstated.
The big upset to the family had been in April, 2009, when the eldest daughter, Zainab, fled for a women’s shelter. Fearful of how their father would react, four of the children, including Monday’s witness, asked a neighbour to call 911.
But when police and a social worker did arrive, so too by then had Mohammad Shafia.
And suddenly, the youngsters retracted their story.
“Our minds calmed down,” the witness testified. “We told them ‘No, we don’t want to leave any more. We’ve changed our minds.’”
Stories from the Shafia home told to teachers at the high school three of the children attended were another source of official concern, the trial has heard, particularly the fears of Sahar.
But it was all just an attention-getting device so the staff would empathize and give them latitude, the witness said.
“We used to get away with almost everything, and they would never call our parents because they felt sorry for us.”
He said the none of the alleged mistreatment of Rona Amir Mohammad laid out in detail in a diary was true either: She was happy, part of the family and had all the freedom she needed. The social ostracization that both she and Sahar complained about? All fiction, the witness said.
Now nearing the end of its second month, the trial will break for Christmas at the end of this week. It is unclear whether the defence will have wrapped up its case by then. The proceedings will resume in January.
The four deaths occurred while the family was returning to Montreal after a short vacation in Niagara Falls, travelling in two cars, and the detective doing the interrogation focused heavily on the trip.
In response to a police question about the three defendants’ initial story that Zainab Shafia took one of the cars for an unauthorized late-night spin, when the family stopped overnight at a Kingston motel, taking the other three with her, the witness said he could not explain why Rona Amir Mohammad, who had been a kind of surrogate mother to the seven children, would have gone along with it.
But later Monday, he told his father’s lawyer, Peter Kemp, that he was just saying what he thought Det. Constable Bambrick wanted to hear.
It was an emotional day. As the witness was brought into the courtroom, he waved at his mother, who beamed and waved back. It was the first time he had seen his parents since they were arrested, and the occasion also marked Ms. Yahya’s 42nd birthday.
His father, however, was overcome as his son arrived, clutching a tissue to his eyes and weeping copiously.
The witness will be cross-examined by the prosecution Tuesday.