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Teen attempted suicide because of home life, jury hears in 'honour killings' trial

Sahar Shafia is shown in this photo released by the courts on Tuesday Nov. 22, 2011.


More than a year before she and her two sisters drowned in a mysterious incident that is now the focus of a murder trial, a teenage student told her Montreal high school vice-principal that she had attempted suicide because her situation at home was intolerable, the jury was told Wednesday.

"She said: 'I wanted to die. I'd had enough. I wanted to die,' " Josée Fortin recounted Sahar Shafia telling her in May, 2008.

The 16-year-old listed an array of reasons for her despair and decision to swallow a heavy dose of sedative pills: verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her older brother Hamed; her parents' insistence that she wear a hijab, the Muslim head scarf; isolation from other family members; pressure to quit school.

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A social worker from the provincial Youth Protection Agency was therefore summoned to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry school in the Montreal borough of St. Leonard, Ms. Fortin told the trial, as were Sahar's parents, who showed up "very angry."

But when the adults arrived, "I saw the child changing," she testified, and it was clear that both then, and on a future occasion, the teen was fearful to speak up.

"Sahar was very afraid each time we told her we had to contact her parents, and that worried me," Ms. Fortin told the jury.

The same reaction was noted by the YPA worker who briefly intervened.

"She was clearly extremely scared," Jeanne Rowe told the jury, recounting her interview alone with Sahar in a school room.

"She was crying profusely; she didn't stop crying."

Yet even as she wept, Sahar was adamant: Her initial complaint had been false, and she now wanted to go home.

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Both parents, too, denied there was any problem.

Sahar was not the only Shafia youngster encountering problems at the school, the jury heard.

Geeti, the youngest of the sisters to be found in the lock, was repeatedly absent in the weeks before her death and was scoring dismal grades, Nathalie Laramée, a school official at Antoine de Saint-Exupéry during the 2008-2009 school year, testified. Once, she was sent home for wearing clothes that were too revealing.

Ms. Laramée,, who supervised a program for newly arrived immigrants, also described trying to talk Sahar out of a plan to leave home as soon as she turned 18 and to take Geeti with her.

Ms. Laramée further underlined the hostility of the children's parents, particularly their father, when confronted again about problems in the family home. He raised his voice and warned that he would be contacting a lawyer.

The school and the YPA were aware of incidents in which Sahar complained of being scratched with scissors by Hamed and hit by him at least once.

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But because the teen vigorously retracted her original complaint, and because no risk to any of the children seemed imminent, the YPA closed the file.

"She denied everything that was in the [original]report," Ms. Rowe said of Sahar. "She said things were better and she wanted to stay at home."

On trial are Kabul-born Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their eldest son, Hamed, 20. Each is charged with four counts of first-degree murder.

The charges were laid in July, 2009, three weeks after the bodies of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, respectively, were discovered in a car at the bottom of a waterway lock on the Rideau Canal, just east of Kingston. The cause of death was drowning, autopsies showed, but where and how they perished has not been established.

Also in the submerged Nissan Sentra was Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had come to Canada in 2007. Ostensibly, she was Mohammad Shafia's cousin, but she was in fact his first wife, and lived with the rest of the family in a clandestine polygamous marriage.

Travelling in two vehicles, a Nissan and a Lexus, the 10-member party had been returning to Montreal after a short vacation in Niagara Falls, and the three defendants told police a dreadful accident had taken place during an overnight stay at a Kingston motel, when Zainab and the other three victims took the Nissan for a joyride.

Police swiftly suspected murder, however, and the prosecution thesis is that multiple so-called "honour killings" were committed. This was allegedly done in an effort to restore the family's "reputation," supposedly stained by the rebellious conduct of the three Shafia sisters, in particular the dating habits of the eldest two.

It's alleged the Lexus was used to propel the Nissan into the lock, leaving both cars damaged – the Lexus at the front and the Nissan at the back.

But in a videotaped Kingston police interview, taken one day after the bodies were found and shown to the jury Wednesday, an oddly upbeat Mohammad Shafia seemed to offer another possible explanation, breaking into a broad grin at one point.

He told Detective-Constable Steve Koopman that back in Niagara Falls he'd spied Zainab driving the Nissan in the hotel parking lot and saw her reverse it into the Lexus.

He was incensed, he said. So he rushed down and grabbed the car keys and told his daughter [who had no driver's licence] "You're going to kill yourself."

Mr. Shafia also told the detective he'd advised his wife, Tooba, to stop crying so much about the loss of their three daughters and Rona Amir Mohammad because what happened had been God's will.

The trial before Mr. Justice Robert Maranger resumes Thursday.

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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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