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A mother forced to face the truth

Confronted with her children’s deaths, Tooba Yahya breaks down


 
A mother forced to face the truth

Lars Hagberg/CP

Mohammad Shafia, the Afghan immigrant on trial for quadruple “honourcide,” spent the day watching video footage of his wife crying, denying, and finally crumbling, under hours of police interrogation. Later that night, the 58-year-old accused murderer was rushed from his prison cell to a hospital room, suffering from what the judge described as a “serious medical emergency.” Whether the recording triggered his undisclosed ailment, only Shafia knows for sure. But the content was certainly enough to make anybody ill.

At one point, as the camera rolls, Shafia’s wife buries her tear-soaked cheeks in a family photo album that contains the faces of all seven of her children: the four who are still alive, and the three who were dumped, allegedly with her help, into a watery grave. “I haven’t killed,” Tooba Yahya says, in between heavy sobs. “And I don’t want to talk.”

The cop trying to convince her otherwise is Insp. Shahin Mehdizadeh, a Farsi-speaking Mountie who was seconded to the Kingston, Ont., force for the sole purpose of interviewing the accused “honour killers” in their native tongue. A veteran of major crime investigations, Mehdizadeh arrived in town just 48 hours before the arrests, but by the time he introduces himself to Yahya on the evening of July 22, 2009, he is well versed on the case file. “We know what has happened now,” he says, his words subtitled for the jury. “But we want to know why. Why have four lives been lost? For what?”

Weeks earlier, a black Nissan Sentra was discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal with four bodies floating inside: three of the Shafia girls—Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13—and their “stepmother,” Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad. Prosecutors say that what appeared to be a tragic accident was in fact a “planned and premeditated” massacre, committed because the girls had shamed the family by having boyfriends and wishing to live like typical Canadian teenagers. (Rona, it’s alleged, was a throw-in of sorts, killed to appease her rival wife in the polygamous household.) Shafia, Yahya, and their eldest son, Hamed, have all pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder.

“The police here in Canada don’t arrest people for no reason and put shackles on them,” says Mehdizadeh, dressed in a blue shirt and matching tie. He is standing beside a table in the centre of the interrogation room, scattered with crime scene photos. Yahya, wearing all black, is sitting on the other side. “If you don’t want to say anything, don’t say it,” he continues. “But listen to me. There are lots of things here that I have to tell you.”

Yahya repeats the same story she has already spun for police and the press. After a road trip to Niagara Falls, she says, the family of 10 stopped at a Kingston motel for the night, on their way home to Montreal. As she dozed off, Zainab asked for the keys to the Sentra so she could retrieve some clothes. The next morning—June 30, 2009—the car, and its four passengers, were nowhere to be found.

“So this is your story?” Mehdizadeh asks.

“Yes,” Yahya answers.

“Now I start my story.”

“Please.”

Over the next six hours, Mehdizadeh conducts a textbook interview, picking apart Yahya’s version of events inch by agonizing inch. He praises her as a mother, pleads with her as a fellow Muslim, and implores her to do “the right thing” for her daughters. The more she denies, the more evidence he reveals.

“Do you love Hamed?” he asks, referring to her son, now 20. “Is he a good boy?”

“Hamed is a very good boy,” she answers. “Believe me, you can go and ask his school . . . [He] doesn’t want any grief or sorrow to touch our home.”

Why, then, was his cellphone in the Kingston area on June 27—three days before the car was found underwater, and while the rest of the family was still vacationing in the Falls? Did his father go with him?

“I don’t remember it exactly,” she says.

Mehdizadeh finally sits down, his bald spot in view of the overhead camera. “Your husband had asked your brother’s help in killing his children, especially Zainab,” he says. “Your brother has told me.”

Yahya gulps.

As the questions continue, Mehdizadeh shows her a photograph of the Kingston Mills locks, where the submerged car was found. In order to reach the water’s edge, the Nissan had to jump a high curb, make a sharp left turn around a rock outcropping, and then another hard right around a stone wall. And even then, he says, the Sentra wouldn’t have been going fast enough to clear the embankment. “Something really heavy would have pushed the car to fall into the water,” he says.

His suspect still in denial, Mehdizadeh goes one step further, telling her that shattered pieces of headlight from the family’s other car, a Lexus SUV, were recovered at the scene.

“How can I dare to throw my kids in the water?” says Yahya, now 41.

“I don’t say you,” the inspector replies. “Have I ever told you that you threw your kids in the water? I don’t know whether you have pushed the car yourself or someone else has pushed the car, but I am certain you know how this car has ended up here.”

Yet again, Yahya begins to bawl. “How did your daughters come here?” Mehdizadeh asks, leaning closer.

“God sees everything, Madam.”

“You know what has happened.”

“What is the story?”

Inside the courtroom prisoner’s box, Mohammad Shafia wiped his own eyes with a Kleenex, the video of his distraught wife apparently too much to stomach.

“Madam, these poor girls had lives, these poor girls wanted to live,” he continues. “They were your young daughters. They were dear to you. They have come from you.”

For a few more minutes, Yahya clings to her collapsing alibi. And then she reluctantly admits, for the first time, that her husband had talked about killing “her.”

“Which one?” the inspector asks.

“Zainab,” she says.

Back in the prisoner’s box, Shafia suddenly stopped crying. His wife, with nowhere to hide from her own incriminating words, buried her head in her lap.

“I request you one thing,” she says to the officer. “Never tell my husband that I have said this.” She explains that her kids—the ones who aren’t dead or under arrest—need her now more than ever. “I want my children not to be raised in different houses,” she says. “I want to be with my kids and have them round me under my wings . . . After this incident happened I just decided not to let even a hair fall off these four children to the ground.”

What she proceeds to say, however, falls far short of a full confession. Yahya admits that she was at the locks that night, but that her husband “was alone” at the water’s edge. “I heard a noise. Hamed and I heard it. We both ran and we saw that a car was in the water.” Then, she says, she passed out.

“Hamed went into the water to save them?”

“No. He couldn’t go into the water.”

“Why?”

“He couldn’t go. We ran and I fell down.”

And why didn’t Hamed phone 911?

“Maybe he didn’t have his cellphone.”

Luckily for her husband, when he suffered his medical emergency in prison, someone did dial 911. Shafia is now out of the hospital and back in court, fit to listen to the rest of his wife’s damning words.


 

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