Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to Macleans.ca and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial.
During her three days (and counting) on the witness stand, Tooba Mohammad Yahya has repeatedly told the jury about her husband’s annoying little “habit.” If something bothered him—if his children misbehaved, for example—he would talk and talk and talk. And then talk about it some more. “Most Afghani men have this habit,” she explained. “He used to repeat that thing for months and years.”
Her cross-examination has been equally tedious. Accused, along with husband and eldest son, of killing three of her own beautiful daughters (and her fellow wife in a secretly polygamous household), Tooba has unleashed her man’s trademark “habit” on Crown prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis. Even the simplest of questions—Were you angry after finding condoms in your house? How long did you stop at that particular McDonald’s? What day was the funeral?—has triggered a rambling response about the teachings of the Koran or motherly love or how sick and forgetful she was on that fatal night 2½ years ago. At one point, Tooba refused to concede that 500 meters is half-a-kilometer, because it was dark outside and math is not her strength.
But on Wednesday afternoon, just minutes before court adjourned for the night, Tooba said something that could not have been more clear: her son was at the water’s edge when the car-turned-coffin plunged into the canal—but only her son, not mom and dad. “’Til now, I am upset with Hamed and my heart is bleeding,” she testified. “He should have told me.”
And suddenly, for the first time since this trial began back in October, the defence revealed its core strategy: blame Hamed. Not for quadruple murder, but for failing to tell anyone, including his grieving parents, that he personally witnessed the “accident.”
Confused? So were many of the people packed inside the courtroom. Such is life (and death) in the Shafia world.
All three suspects—Mohammad Shafia, 59; Tooba, 42; and Hamed, 21—are charged with jointly orchestrating a mass “honour kill” meant to restore their family’s reputation, decimated by the girls’ so-called “treacherous” behaviour (ie. wearing tight jeans and talking to boys). The trio’s alleged murder weapon was their silver Lexus SUV, used to ram the four female victims over the edge of the Kingston Mills Locks. At the heart of the Crown’s case are shattered bits of headlight found at the death scene, and hours of wiretap rants starring a very angry Mohammad Shafia. “My conscience is clear,” he said in one intercept. “They haven’t done good and God punished them.”
Under police interrogation, father and son conceded nothing, sticking to the same story they told detectives on day one of the investigation: the girls took the keys to the Nissan Sentra and embarked on a deadly, late-night joyride. But Tooba did eventually crack under questioning, confessing that all three were at the locks when the car fell in. (“Never tell my husband that I have said this,” she begged the interrogating officer.) The next morning—and on the witness stand this week—she insisted it was all a lie, a desperate but misguided attempt to save her son from “torture.”
As always, the story isn’t over.
After reading news articles about the arrests, an Afghan-born Queen’s University student contacted Shafia’s lawyer, Peter Kemp, offering his services as a Dari translator. Moosa Hadi was granted blanket access to all the disclosure material—the wiretaps, the forensic reports, the videotaped interrogations—and before long, Shafia hired the engineering student as a private eye, paying him $4,500 to “discover the truth.” By November 2009, four months after the women died, Hadi’s “investigation” took him straight to Hamed.
In a jailhouse interview, recorded on Hadi’s laptop, the son offered a fresh version of events, the one his mother now seems to believe with all her bleeding heart.
Stopped at a Kingston motel on the way home from a Niagara Falls vacation, Hamed said he spotted his sisters—Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13—inside the Nissan with their “stepmother,” Rona Amir Mohammad, 52. Although none of the passengers had a license, Hamed says they wanted to drive to a nearby gas station to buy some phone cards, with Zainab behind the wheel. So he followed them in the Lexus, just to make sure they got back safely.
The pumps, though, were closed, and while looking for a suitable place to turn around, both cars ended up near the locks. It was there, Hamed said, that he accidentally rear-ended the Sentra. “I hit the back but not hard, just the glass was broken, the glass of Lexus car,” he said.
Moments later, while picking up the shards, he heard a splash and sprinted over. “At that moment,” he told Hadi, “I think one of the lights was showing.” He grabbed a yellow rope from his trunk, dangled it over the water and beeped his horn several times. When none of his sisters swam to the surface, he did what any good brother would: he climbed back into the SUV and headed straight home to Montreal.
He never told his parents what happened, he said, and didn’t call police because he was afraid they would “blame me” for allowing Zainab to drive without a license. “I was scared,” Hamed said. “I decided with myself not to say that I was with them.”
Back in Montreal, he staged a single-car accident in an empty parking lot, hoping to cover up the damage sustained at the locks.
On the stand, Tooba said she didn’t hear about Hamed’s dark secret until many months later, at a preliminary court hearing. “He sees you grieving and crying and doesn’t tell you anything about it?” Laarhuis asks.
“I don’t know why he didn’t say anything,” she answered.
“When you’re at the funeral, he doesn’t say anything?”
“When they take the other kids out of your house, he doesn’t say anything?”
“When they arrested you, he doesn’t say anything?”
“When you’re in jail for four months, he doesn’t say anything?”
“So are you defending Hamed now for not having told you?”
“But you’ll agree that the reason he didn’t call rescue people, the reason he drove to Montreal and staged another collision, a fake one, was to avoid dealing with his dad?” Laarhuis asked. “That was his account. You agree that the consequences would have been serious, even for Hamed, as the oldest son, for not having told his dad about Zainab driving.”
“He was frightened, not to be in trouble,” Tooba said. “Hamed, for sure, would have been under pressure because that would have been the death of four people.”
“But it was the accidental death of four people,” Laarhuis pointed out.
“If it was accidental, he should have told us,” he said. “He should have come and told us everything clearly.”
In the courtroom prisoners’ box, ankles shackled, Hamed showed no emotion as his mother “scolded” him. His father reached for a Kleenex and patted his eyes, another habit he’s picked up in recent weeks.