“I want God to finish my life”

At the “honour killing” trial, autopsy photos reveal crucial clues


Colin Perkel/Canadian Press

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, which is expected to run into December.

Zainab Shafia was found in the front passenger seat, her fingernails painted a light shade of blue. She was 19 years old and had 10 cents in her pocket. Her younger sister, Sahar (purple fingernails; black toe nails), was in the seat directly behind her, a sleeveless top covering her pierced belly button. Thirteen-year-old Geeti, the youngest of the dead Shafia girls, was floating over the driver’s seat, dressed in knee-length jeans and a brown shirt. Like Sahar, the big sister she idolized, Geeti had a stud through her belly button.

Rona Amir Mohammad—the girls’ “stepmother” in their dad’s polygamous, patriarchal world—was the fourth relative discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal. Pulled from the back seat of the sunken Nissan Sentra, she was wearing six yellow bangles on her left wrist and three pairs of earrings. Dr. Christopher Milroy, the forensic pathologist who examined Rona’s lifeless body, noticed something else: two “fresh bruises” on the crown of her head, a total of 6 cm in diameter.

A close-up of those bruises was shown to a Kingston, Ont., courtroom on Monday—part of a graphic slideshow of autopsy photos that could prove crucial to the jury’s eventual verdict. As Dr. Milroy explained, Zainab and Geeti suffered nearly identical skull injuries, albeit smaller. “It clearly requires explanation,” he testified. “It is unusual that all three would have similar injuries.”

This much is not in dispute: extensive toxicology tests conducted on all four victims came back negative for a wide range of incapacitating substances, from alcohol to carbon monoxide to cyanide. Milroy also confirmed drowning as the official cause of death. However, the Ottawa-based pathologist could not say with scientific certainty whether the women actually died at the Kingston Mills Locks, or drowned somewhere else before being dumped in the canal. “The pathology is neutral on that scenario,” he testified. “I’m not able to determine, from a pathology point of view, whether they drowned somewhere else and then went into the water.”

The bruises certainly suggest the latter.

According to prosecutors, what appeared at first glance to be a tragic wrong turn was in fact a mass “honour kill” orchestrated by the girls’ own father, mother and brother. They died, the Crown claims, because their Westernized behaviour—boyfriends, make-up, typical teenage insubordination—so shamed the Afghan family’s good Muslim name that they believed execution was the only way to restore their reputation. (Rona, it’s alleged, was a throw-in of sorts, murdered because of a longstanding feud with her fellow wife.) All three suspects—Mohammad Shafia, 58; Tooba Yahya, 41; and Hamed Shafia, 20—have pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder.

Gerard Laarhuis, one of two prosecutors working the case, warned the packed courtroom about the nature of the photos he was about to display. By then, Yahya had already been escorted out of the prisoners’ box, the sight of her deceased daughters too much to bear.

Rona was the first to flash on the big-screen televisions, her corpse still dressed in the jeans and blue top she was wearing three days earlier, when the family left their Niagara Falls “vacation” for the drive home to Montreal. As is typical during autopsies, the skin on her head was peeled back to allow a closer look at the bruising. “It is not a severe fracture, but neither is it minor,” Milroy said, using the arrow of a mouse to pinpoint the injury. “It was a firm impact.” When asked if such a blow could have knocked her unconscious, Milroy said it’s impossible to know for sure. “I can’t tell you what the likelihood is, but I can tell you that any blow to the head can certainly render somebody unconscious.”

Zainab appeared next, wearing tight black jeans, a red shirt and cardigan sweater—which, for reasons unknown, was on backwards. She had two bruises: one on her scalp, a diameter of 1.5 cm, and another on the right side of the crown, slightly smaller. In the bulletproof prisoners’ box, their ankles shackled, father and son could barely look at the screen. At times, they wiped their eyes with Kleenex.

The bruises on Geeti’s scalp were smaller than Rona’s but larger than Zainab’s. It is likely, Milroy said, that they were caused by a single impact of some kind. In his accompanying report, he described Geeti as “a well-nourished and well developed adolescent female.” She had 19 cents in her pocket.

Sahar, 17 when she perished, was not included among the post-mortem photos; of the four, she was the only one not bruised or scarred, at least not physically. Like the others, her hands and feet were wrinkled from hours in the water, and her stomach was full of potatoes, likely French fries. The vacationers had stopped at a McDonald’s just hours before they died.

Although police never found another crime scene, prosecutors obviously believe that the victims were either dead or unconscious before plunging into the water. None of them was wearing a seatbelt, and although the driver’s side window was wide open, nobody managed to escape.

“Were each of them fit, healthy, and able bodied?” Laarhuis asked Milroy.


“What would happen if a sleeping person went into the water?”

“They would wake up,” Milroy said. “They would wake up immediately.”

During cross-examination, Shafia’s lawyer asked Milroy if it’s possible that the women bumped their heads on the rear windshield as the car fell into the water. (“I don’t know if it’s most likely,” he said. “But it’s certainly a possibility.”) Peter Kemp also asked the doctor, who has conducted nearly 5,000 autopsies in his career, how long it would take to drown someone by holding their head under water.

“It would probably take two or three minutes,” he said. “But it could take as long as ten.”

“So to drown each one individually could take up to 40 minutes?” Kemp asked.

“It could be less than that,” Milroy answered.

Forensics aside, the jury also heard Monday from yet another witness who claimed that Mohammad Shafia was threatening murder in the weeks before half his family turned up dead. A relative, whose identity is protected by a temporary publication ban, said Rona herself overheard Shafia, Yahya and Hamed whispering about a plot to kill her and Zainab. It was April 2009, and Zainab, the eldest of the children, had just run away from home and taken refuge in a women’s shelter.

“Shafia was really upset, he was angry,” said the relative, quoting one of her many phone conversations with Rona. “He said: ‘If she doesn’t return back, I will kill her, because she dishonoured me.’” The witness said one of the other accused (either Tooba or Hamed; she can’t recall) asked Shafia: “What about the other one?”

“Shafia said: ‘I will kill the other one, too,’” the witness said. “Rona said: ‘It must have been me.’”

Rona was Shafia’s first bride, and as the jury is well aware, she was unable to bear children. After a decade of failed fertility treatments, Shafia married a second wife: Yahya, 17 year his junior. Together, they had seven children—and Rona helped raise them. “Shafia said to Rona: ‘I want to keep you. Stay with me. If I can get children, that will be good for you because they can support you,’” the witness said. “He, himself, he didn’t like two wives. But he said he had to in order to have children.”

The family left Afghanistan for Dubai in 1992, and then immigrated to Canada in the summer of 2007. (Rona joined them a few month’s later on a visitor’s visa; Shafia told immigration authorities that she was his cousin, and they believed him.) But once in Canada, the witness said, Rona was ostracized and ignored. Shafia gave her a $50 monthly allowance, she said, and Tooba instructed the children not to speak to her. “She was crying,” said the witness. “She was saying: ‘I am fed up with my life and I want God to finish my life. I want to be in an accident.’”

After Rona told her about the death threat, the witness said she urged her to go to police. Petrified, Rona refused. “She was shivering,” said the woman, who travelled thousands of kilometers to testify. “She was afraid. I told her: ‘Don’t be afraid. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Dubai. This is Canada. You don’t have any problem. Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen.’ ”

She last spoke to Rona at the end of June 2009, right before the family’s road trip to the Falls. Days later, when Dr. Milroy completed his autopsy report, he noted the ring on Rona’s left finger and the watch on her other wrist. In his report, on page eight, he wrote: “Non-pregnant.”


“I want God to finish my life”

  1. Every picture I’ve seen of the 3 accused murderers (X4 counts each), they have been in casual business street clothes….Where are the bright orange prison jumpsuits they well deserve?

    • Not wearing bright orange jumpsuits?  Hopefully because this is Canada, where guilt needs to be proven in a court of law – before dressing people up as convicts.  But it seems that you prefer a court system where evidence-based rulings are ditched in favour of old guys in armchairs passing sentences based on accusation alone.  If so, you might fit in better among the Taliban in Afghanistan. Although I think even they have a higher standard of proof.

    • They’ll have Hamed in pink, in no time, once he’s in Kingston.

  2. God won`t do it, but I suspect Shafia will get his wish if he is released into general populace in Millhaven next year.

    • You misread the quote. It was from the 1st wife saying she wished God would just end her life. NOT from the husband.

  3. Just what do the ‘diversity’ crowd hope to accomplish with these bulk third world warm body imports? Oh, right–the real estate-financial lobby needs to keep growing. (Mohammad Shafia was a so-called Investor/Entrepreneur-class–i.e., ‘buy-a-citizenship’–immigrant.)

    Everyone’s passing the buck here, but consider this: children who were NEVER PHYSICALLY ABUSED were removed from parental custody, because their folks were White Supremacists. Yet ‘culturally-sensitive’ social workers allowed the Shafia kids to stay in their parents’ care, even when they were in obvious danger. And the cops could have pressed charges at the first signs of abuse, rather than waiting for the PC-addled social workers to ‘do something.’ Political correctness was to blame–no ifs, ands, or buts, and the social workers who dropped the ball should face criminal sanctions.

    The only ‘justice’ would be the ruthless dishonouring of Hamed Shafia by his cellmates. While he may not get 72 Houri in the afterlife, young Hamed can look forward to a few encounters with Bubba and Big Danny in the shower. He’d better acquire a taste for non-Halal meat, if you catch my drift.

  4. My heart goes out to these victims and their familes and what I want to say comes with al due respect to the lives lost.. 
    Those bruises could have come from anywhere. Why automatically jump to conclusions that this was was am ‘honour killing’? Our so-called edcuated/civilized society is so biased in these matters, it’s actually pretty sad. Why can’t we look at other possibliities like, perhaps Shafia’s first wife committed the suicide/murder herself? It’s been reported by witnesses that she was very unhappy in her marriage and she wanted God to end her life. Or perhaps it was Zainab who plotted the whole thing with her stepmother?
    And lets stop calling it “Muslim Honour’ because stuff like this happens all over the world and not limited to the muslim world eg. the judge in Texas who beat his daughter with a belt.
    I feel so sorry for these women because their life ended so much sooner than their due time. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to live under the same roof with a tyrant father like Shafia who terrorized his own family in such a abusive manner.
    At the same time, I really encourage people to have an open heart and mind because not all strict fathers from muslim dominant countries are murderers and not everyone from Asia/Middle East is a fundamentalist. So lets wait for the judges to pass their verdict without getting swayed by the obviously biased reports printed by the media.

    • give your head a shake!

    • Its people like you who won’t wake up to this; read about Sharia Law and then tell me what you think.  I will never live under that and hopefully Canada will never adopt it.  I am talking 50 years down the road when they outnumber us and they have power.  Just look at the Muslim countries around the world.  They constantly battle each other, kill each other, keep women under thumb, and treat them no better than cattle.  There are no bloodier and horrid places to live than those under Muslim rule.  Why can’t so many see the truth. 

    • You’re an idiot. They have them on TAPE talking about this, talking about it being an honour killing, talking about all of it. Pull your fucking head out.

    • Mohammed Shafia was caught on police wiretap saying, 

      “It was all treason, they committed treason from beginning to end. They betrayed humankind, they betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed our tradition, they betrayed everything.
      Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows…nothing is more dear to me than my honour.”

      I don’t think you can get more explicit references to Muslim honour, straight from the horse’s mouth, than the above.

      He also said:

      “I say to myself, ‘You did well. Would they come back to life a hundred times, for you to do the same again.That is how hurt I am. Tooba, they betrayed us immensely. They violated us immensely. There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this.”
      “If we remain alive one night or one year, we have no tension in our hearts, (thinking that) our daughter is in the arms of this or that boy, in the arms of this or that man.May the devil…(defecate) on their graves. Is that what a daughter should be? Would (a daughter) be such a whore?”Sound like what grieving parents might say after almost half their family is killed in a tragic accident? I don’t think so. Read the trial coverage.

    • Get your head out of the sand!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. This is why we require something…more convincing than life in prison. Maybe we should bring back lethal injection for this paticular case.

  6. I am sickened by this.  I am worried about the families nobody is writing about.  The other Zainab’s out there.  Who is speaking for them?  Why is Canada supporting the so called revolutionaries in Libya?  We all know the Hardline Muslim factions will impose Sharia Law in these formerly pretty Westernized countries.  Maybe the former dictators were not the best, but women had freedom and rights.  I fear for the women in Libya and Egypt and Syria…. will this nightmare never end?  Or will they all end up in rivers and lakes?  What horrible things this trial is exposing about Muslim fundamentalists.  And many of the local papers are not covering this.  Who are they covering for?  We need as much exposure about this kind of thing as possible.  Thank you for showing us just what kind of a society Islam produces. 

  7. People please google Irshid Manji and read “the Trouble With Islam”  You will be very enlightened. 

  8. What I find particularly disturbing is that the victims cried out for help from our law enforcement and child protection services – and they were ignored and left to their fate. The social workers closed their files because, when the girls had to repeat their stories of abuse in front of their violent, abusive father, they recanted – no kidding, Sherlock! You mean that victims who are terrified of their abusers may recant for fear of reprisals – who would have thought?
    I wonder how those social workers can sleep at night, knowing they could have prevented four murders.

  9. So are we as a society complicit in these people’s deaths because we allowed them to come here when their values are clearly not ours?

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