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Stress made her lie about daughters’ deaths, accused says

An Afghan-Canadian mother has testified that stress induced her to lie repeatedly to police about the deaths of her daughters. Tooba Mohammad Yahya told her murder trial that she was under arrest, three of her children were dead and Montreal child-care authorities had taken away three others.

"My wounds were fresh," Ms. Yahya told prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis on Thursday.

But now, she insisted, she is telling the truth.

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"If I didn't understand his questions, I lied. I was under a lot of pressure," Ms Yahya said in reference to an interview with a Farsi-speaking RCMP officer a few hours after she, her husband and their eldest son were each charged with four counts of first-degree murder.

It was Ms. Yahya's fourth day in the witness box, her long, sometimes animated answers sprinkled with the phrase, "I don't remember that."

Along with accusing her of having a highly selective memory, Mr. Laarhuis cited portions of Ms. Yahya's six-hour interview with RCMP Inspector Shahin Mehdizadeh in which she seemed to be trying to shift suspicion away from her son Hamed and toward her husband, businessman Mohammad Shafia.

"You'd been steadfast in pointing the finger at Shafia and not Hamed, do you agree?" he asked Ms. Yahya.

Not true, she replied. She was merely trying to find out what happened.

Ms. Yahya, 42, is the second of the three defendants to testify. Mr. Shafia, 59, gave evidence in December, and there is considerable speculation about whether Hamed will follow his parents on to the witness stand next week.

The trio are accused of killing four members of the Shafia family: their daughters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti, aged 19, 17 and 13, and Mr. Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53.

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The four bodies were found June 30, 2009, in a car submerged in a Rideau Canal lock, just east of Kingston. The 10-member family had been returning to Montreal from a short holiday in Niagara Falls, driving in a Nissan and a Lexus, and stopped at a Kingston motel, a few minutes away from the Kingston Mills locks.

The accused claim a tragic accident took place when Zainab took the other three for an unauthorized late-night joyride in the Nissan.

The prosecution says the four women were murdered in an effort to restore the Shafia family's "honour," supposedly stained by the non-traditional conduct of the teens, particularly the eldest two. It contends that Ms. Yahya drove the victims to the locks in the Nissan, and that the defendants drowned them there, and shoved the Nissan with the bodies into the lock with the Lexus, damaging both cars.

Ms. Yahya has told the trial that because she was tired and unwell that night, she parked the Nissan close to the motel while her husband and son and the other three children went to find accommodation. Then everyone checked in for the night, she said. The Crown contends the victims never got to the motel.

Ms. Yahya has been vague about the location of that parking place, which the Crown believes was the Kingston Mills locks. All she recalls is that it was dark.

Mr. Laarhuis was scathing about her uncertainty.

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"You were able to tell us where your family car was parked 20 years ago when you were fleeing [Kabul] for the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Yet on the 30th of June when [Canadian] police asked you where your car was parked 12 hours before with your kids in it – now dead – you don 't remember?"

"Yes, it differs a lot, these are different from those times," Ms. Yahya replied.

The prosecutor has cited several discrepancies in Ms. Yahya's accounts of events, the most striking being her statement to Inspector Mehdizadeh (retracted the next day) that she and the other two accused were at the locks that night, and that she was walking along a darkened road chatting with Hamed when they heard a splash – the Nissan plunging into the water.

Now she says that is untrue. But Mr. Laarhuis contended that all through that long interview she was changing her story from "Plan A" to "Plan B" to "Plan C."

Mr. Laarhuis suggested that what generated the tale of the late-night walk was the fact that her RCMP inquisitor had just confronted her with the discovery at the scene of shards from a smashed Lexus headlight that exactly matched the Shafias' Lexus.

Inspector Mehdizadeh did not, however, state that the Lexus was believed to have propelled the Nissan into the lock.

Ms. Yahya's response was read out in court

"Excuse me," she said to him. "The important thing is to specify the person who pushed it into the water."

Mr. Laarhuis asked why she would say that.

"The concept that the Lexus pushed it into the water comes out of your mouth, it's you who put together. ... It's clear, Tooba, that you know exactly what happened at the scene. ... You didn't want to tell the officer that it was Hamed who was driving, you wanted to divert the blame to Shafia. ...You never saw Shafia driving the Lexus at all that night."

"I don't remember saying that," she replied.

The trial continues Friday.

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At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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