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Two books go inside Mohammad Shafia’s dishonourable killings

A pair of books about the Shafia trial show solid news reporting works better than me-first journalism.


REVIEWED HERE: Without Honour: The True Story of the Shafia Family and the Kingston Canal Murders, by Rob Tripp (HarperCollins, 350 pages, $29.99); Honour on Trial: The Shafia Murders and the Culture of Honour Killings, by Paul Schliesmann (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 207 pages, $21.95)

Big crime stories often yield thoughtful books once the media caravan moves on, but you rarely find two back-to-back accounts as compelling as these. One is meticulously detailed, brimming with fresh insight. The other is shorter but just as deft, a crisp page-turner. Together, they offer a cheering reminder that in the age of media froth and me-journalism, solid reporting still works best.

The outlines of this dreadful tale are familiar. In 2007, Afghan millionaire businessman Mohammad Shafia emigrated from Dubai to Montreal, buying his way into Canada under the federal investor program and bringing with him five daughters, two sons and two wives (one ostensibly a cousin). Two years later, he decided it was time to kill three of those daughters, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti, aged 19, 17 and 13 respectively. His burdensome first wife, Rona, 53, would also die.

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So, in June, 2009, Shafia, his second wife, Tooba, and their elder son, Hamed, led the 10-member family on a summer road trip to Niagara Falls. En route home to Montreal, they stopped at a motel outside Kingston, a short drive from the waterway boating lock where the four bodies were found the next morning in a submerged car. The three killers had staged a drowning accident, pretending the four had taken an unauthorized late-night joyride and somehow careened into the water.

Kingston detectives never believed a word of it. Yet as they navigated through the "how" of this highly unusual homicide investigation, there was a still larger question: "Why."

At trial, Shafia presented himself as a pious Muslim, a loving if sometimes impatient father. In truth, he was a thug and a hustler who had not stepped inside a mosque for years, a hair-triggered tyrant much feared by his daughters, and a man who made money easily and enjoyed spending it. At the time of his arrest, he was building himself a mansion in the Montreal suburbs with twin master bedrooms – one for each wife. And as the police soon learned from wiretaps, he also had an acute sense of his own "honour," and how angry it made him to experience "shame." Hamed, who lorded it over the unhappy household when dad was away, readily concurred.

Home for Mohammad, Tooba and Hamed these days means cramped cells in maximum-security penitentiaries, serving life imprisonment, tripped up by arrogance and stupidity that in another context might have been comical.

All ultimately stemmed from the father's simmering rage over his rebellious daughters' freedom in their new homeland, particularly their blossoming sexuality and interest in boys, which he viewed as a personal affront. As for Rona, the first wife, whose poignant diary chronicled years of cruelty and abuse by Mohammad and Tooba, she had become a serious liability. Polygamy in Canada is illegal.

Rob Tripp gives himself some licence in recreating dialogue, and the italics could have been used more sparingly. Lean prose and a skilled storyline nonetheless blend with some great photos to produce a fine account of this unique story. His title says it all. What were termed "honour" killings were the acts of a maniacal control freak and his two subservient cohorts. "Even if they come back to life a hundred times, if I have a cleaver in my hand I will cut them in pieces," Shafia is heard proclaiming on one memorable, curse-laden wiretap, as he and the other two killers worriedly review events.

In his rants about "honour," Shafia repeatedly invokes God. But as the trial jury heard, while many "honour killings" do occur in Muslim communities, Islam offers no justification anywhere for this very ancient type of murder, rooted in cultural practices that predate all the great religions.

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As with most of the dozen or so "honour killings" in Canada over the past decade, this was about controlling women, particularly their sexuality.

Paul Schliesmann won a National Newspaper Award for his reporting on the Shafia case; his artful narrative here shows why.

And as he found out, the patriarchal system dies hard. A key Crown witness at trial was Tooba's uncle, Latif Hyderi, who recounted a conversation in which Mohammad Shafia talked of killing his eldest daughter, Zainab, a few weeks before he did exactly that. After the convictions, Hyderi and his children were shunned by Montreal's small Afghan-Canadian community, leaving him hurt but unapologetic.

The other focus in the two books is the disparate, sometimes muffled, cries for help from the victims-to-be in the weeks and months before the murders. Authorities in Montreal – teachers, social agencies, police – were alerted at least three times about problems in the dysfunctional Shafia home, yet the inquiries fizzled out.

There were reasons: This unusual, well-to-do clan fit no familiar profile; there was no criminal history and a significant language barrier; and more than once, the children told of their father's abusive behaviour, but then quickly recanted, saying it was all invented. Taken together, it was a recipe for inaction. One of the lingering images from the trial was the distressed testimony of teachers and social workers who wished the dots had been better connected.

When the Shafias were convicted, no one in the packed courtroom was in the least surprised. The mountain of evidence was overwhelming.

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Yet one mystery persists: Just how did the four victims perish? The cause of death was drowning, but they must first have been subdued. And while three had bruises on the crowns of their heads, 17-year-old Sahar Shafia did not. Were they drugged? The toxicology tests showed no sign that they were, but such testing screens only for known substances. If an unfamiliar drug was administered, it would have eluded detection.

Only the three murderers can answer that question. The gap is no stain on these two rigorously researched accounts of an extraordinary, unspeakably sad crime.

Timothy Appleby covered the Shafia trial for The Globe and Mail.

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