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.
Weeks from now, a jury in Kingston, Ont., will huddle in a private room to decide whether the heads of the Shafia clan—father, mother, and eldest son—massacred nearly half the family. Much of their discussion will revolve around cars: why one became an underwater coffin, whether another was a murder weapon, and what was said (or not said) inside a bunch of others.
In court on Thursday, prosecutors at the alleged “honour killing” trial provided a small sample of the latter, playing the first of many intercepted, in-car conversations between the accused trio: Mohammad Shafia, 58; Tooba Yahya, 41; and Hamed Shafia, 20. Their words fluctuate between incriminating and idiotic. At one point, Hamed himself says that the cops probably planted a hidden bug in their mini-van. “They can fasten something to record your voice,” he tells his parents.
In fact, they fastened it in the very day those words were utttered—July 18, 2009—while the threesome was inside police headquarters retrieving some of their dead relatives’ belongings.
Just 2½ weeks earlier, three of the Shafia sisters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13) were discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, floating inside a sunken Nissan Sentra with their “stepmother,” Shafia’s first wife in the polygamous household, Rona Amir Mohammad. Investigators were fairly certain that Shafia, Tooba and Hamed used the other family car, a Lexus SUV, to nudge the Nissan over the edge. But to flush out their theory, the cops planted something else with their wiretap: a ruse.
Investigators told the Shafias that they found a surveillance camera near the Kingston Mills Locks, and were poring through the footage for clips of how the car sank. As soon as the family climbed back in the van and steered home to Montreal, the chatter began.
“There was no camera over there,” Tooba says, in Dari. “I looked around, there wasn’t any. If, God forbid, God forbid, there was one in that little room, all three of us would have been recorded.”
“No,” her husband answers, the sound of the van’s engine in the background. “Had there been one there, they would have checked it first thing and they would have held you to account that night.” Later, he reminds his wife that “there was no electricity there, everywhere was pitch darkness.”
“Yes,” she agrees.
At another point on the tape, Tooba phones home to check on the other three kids—the ones she didn’t allegedly kill. Mom wants to make sure they ate breakfast.
According to prosecutors, what initially appeared to be a tragic accident was in fact a planned and premeditated execution aimed at restoring the Afghan family’s “honour,” which had been tarnished by the teens’ so-called “treacherous” behaviour since immigrating to Canada 2007. The dead Muslim sisters loved fashionable clothes and dated boys and longed for the freedoms they found in their new country. (Court has also heard that Rona, unable to conceive, endured years of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of both her husband and fellow wife.)
“The water was quite deep, not shallow,” Tooba points out, in another line captured on tape.
When conversation shifts back to the supposed video camera, Shafia repeats his stance: “They’re lying.”
But of all the car-ride conversations recalled in court Thursday, the most damning did not come from a wiretap. It came from Tooba’s uncle, Latif Hyderi, who took the stand to testify against his relatives.
At the heart of the Crown’s case is the suggestion that Shafia, a wealthy businessman, was enraged with his disobedient eldest daughter—and more specifically, her insistence on marrying not a fellow Afghan, but a Pakistani. The jury has already heard that in April 2009, less than three months before she died, Zainab ran away to a women’s shelter for two weeks. When she finally returned home, her distraught mother reached out to her uncle for help.
Hyderi—a Canadian citizen and former mujahid who fought the Russians in Afghanistan—told the jury that he also talked to Zainab’s father, who was away in Dubai on business at the time. “I am ashamed to repeat his words, but it was very insulting, very insulting,” he testified. “These words should not be said to a human being.”
“We need to know what those words were,” said Laurie Lacelle, one of the two prosecutors working the case. “We know you don’t mean disrespect.”
“He said she is a whore, she is dirty, she has cursed her father, she was a dirty woman.”
Hyderi says he drove with Tooba and Zainab to a Montreal McDonald’s, where they sat in the parking lot and talked. “Why are you making your parents upset?” he asked. “What is going on with this guy?” Zainab didn’t answer, he said. “Her tears were flowing.” She was insistent: the wedding would happen.
With Shafia still overseas, Hyderi says he helped to prepare the ceremony, finding a mullah and acting as a witness. The next day, he booked a reception at a Montreal restaurant. On the drive over, he said he had a conversation with Zainab that he will never forget. “I told her: ‘Zainab, why are you doing this? Why did you make your family uspet, your brother and your parents?’ ”
“She said: ‘Dear Uncle, there has been a lot of cruelty toward me. There were many other boys who wanted to marry me. I rejected them. This boy does not have money and he is not handsome. The only reason I am marrying him is to get revenge for the cruelty of my father. I sacrifice myself for my sisters so they will get this freedom after me.’ ”
Ironically enough, the groom’s parents didn’t approve of the marriage, so no one from his family showed up at the reception. It was then, Hyderi says, that Zainab agreed to annul the marriage. But Shafia was still furious at his daughter, said Hyderi, who spoke to him again over the phone. “He said: ‘I’m not happy. She didn’t do a good thing. If I was there I would have killed her.’ ”
Hyderi says he later heard, from his niece, that Shafia forgave his daughter and “kissed her on the forehead.” The next time he saw her, the whole family was in the parking lot of a Montreal grocery store—luggage packed for a vacation in Niagara Falls.
Zainab never returned to Montreal.