Portrait of Hamed Shafia, a young 'honour killer'

Portrait of a young ‘honour killer’

How an old family photo could derail Hamed Shafia’s last-ditch appeal


Given how the story ends, it is a haunting family photograph.

Date-stamped May 22, 1993, the grainy image shows an adorable-looking Hamed Shafia, still too young for school, sandwiched between two of the sisters he would one day conspire to kill on Canadian soil: Zainab, 15 months his senior, and Sahar, 10 months younger. Standing behind the three children are their Afghan parents—and Hamed’s future accomplices—Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Yahya.

The picture was snapped in Peshawar, Pakistan, not long after the family fled the civil war raging in their home country next door. Yahya has a white hijab wrapped around her head and a baby in her arms. Her husband’s shoulders are slightly slouched, his hands at his side as the camera clicks.

Sixteen years later, after the family immigrated to Canada, police in Kingston, Ont., would find Zainab and Sahar stuffed inside a sunken car at the bottom of a Rideau Canal lock station. They were not alone. Divers also recovered the bodies of Geeti Shafia, another sister who was not yet born when that portrait was taken; and Rona Amir Mohammad, Dad’s first (and infertile) wife in their secretly polygamous clan.

What happened to those women is no longer in dispute (and never really was). The sisters were “whores” (in the warped worldview of their dad, as captured on police wiretaps) whose stylish clothing and secret boyfriends had so smeared the family’s reputation that only mass murder—designed to look like a tragic traffic accident—could restore that tarnished “honour.” Rona, long marginalized by her wealthy Muslim husband and her fellow bride, was a convenient throw-in, easily dispensable.

READ MORE: Inside the Shafia killings that shocked a nation

It took a jury just 15 hours to convict all three—father, mother and eldest son—of four counts each of first-degree murder. Now serving life sentences, the trio’s Hail-Mary request for a new trial was recently rejected by Ontario’s top court, cementing the verdicts. “Charitably put,” the appeal court concluded, “the evidence of guilt was overwhelming.”

But the high-profile case isn’t finished quite yet. In one last round of legal filings, Hamed alone is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada—and that old family photograph, long forgotten, suddenly looms as an important piece of evidence.

Here’s why.

Hamed’s pursuit of a Supreme Court hearing hinges on one claim: that he was 17 when his relatives were executed on June 30, 2009, not 18 as originally thought, and therefore should have been treated as a young offender—with all the inherent protections of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. He was a homicidal teenager, in other words, not a homicidal adult.


The distinction is huge, to say the least. By law, a youth convicted of first-degree murder cannot serve more than six years in prison—and even if prosecutors convince a judge to sentence such a youth as an adult, parole eligibility kicks in after 10 years, not 25. Which means, if Hamed really was 17 when he helped drown his sisters and his “aunt,” he’d either be sprung from prison immediately, or allowed to apply for parole within a couple of years.

He is now 26. Or 25, if his claim has merit.

Why is Hamed’s age suddenly such a mystery? Post-conviction, a man who works for Mohammad Shafia in Afghanistan purportedly stumbled upon Hamed’s “tazkira,” the main personal identity document in that country. Up until then, everyone in the family, Hamed included, said he came into this world on Dec. 31, 1990. The tazkira, however, listed a different birthdate: 1991, one year later. Shafia’s employee investigated further, requesting a “Certificate of Live Birth” from Afghanistan’s public health ministry; based on records kept by the hospital where Hamed was born, it, too, listed 1991 as his year of birth.

The Criminal Code permits an appeal court to accept fresh evidence when it’s “in the interests of justice to do so,” as long as—according to a well-established legal test—the new evidence is relevant, credible, and could potentially alter the outcome of a case. At the Ontario Court of Appeal hearing last year, Hamed’s lawyer, Scott Hutchison, argued that the newly discovered documents do indeed pass that so-called Palmer test because they raise the real possibility that a young person was tried and convicted in a court that had no jurisdiction to preside over his case.

READ MORE: Shafia honour killers lose bid for new trial

The appeal panel disagreed, in large part because the three judges did not consider the new material “compelling.” Writing for the unanimous court in November, Justice David Watt said “the origins of the tazkira are inherently suspect” because the only information about how it emerged comes from the “hearsay evidence” of Mohammad Shafia, a quadruple murderer and serial liar. Watt also noted that Hamed’s mother, Yahya—the one person who presumably knows exactly when her beloved son was born—has repeatedly said, to police and the jury, that Hamed was 18 at the time of the crime.

“The idea that an individual may be unaware of their own birthdate might sound odd to Canadian ears,” reads Hamed’s memorandum of argument, filed with the Supreme Court. “But considered in its proper cultural context, and the turbulent history of the [Shafia] family as refugees from the wars in Afghanistan, it is readily understood.”

They fled to Pakistan in 1992 without any government documents, the memorandum says, and after living in Peshawar for three years the family was on the move again, this time to Dubai. “It is at this point that the inaccurate birth year was introduced,” the filing continues. “At the consulate in Peshawar, Afghan officials wrote in the year of birth of the children in Tooba’s passport”—including Hamed’s, as 1990, not 1991.

“The error in Hamed’s birthday was not the only error included in these forms or related documents: the years of birth of other Shafia children were also recorded erroneously, and the family name was misspelled as ‘Shafia’ instead of ‘Shafi,’ ” the brief goes on. “All of these errors (the various dates and the misspelled names) were repeated in subsequent documents and persist on the Shafia family’s official papers.”

Mohammad Shafia (l), eldest son Hamed Shafia and Tooba Mohammad Yahya ( back) exit a police van and are escorted to the Kingston Courthouse on Monday December 5, 2011. He along with his dad and mother are accused of killing the teenage Shafia sisters and Shafia's first wife in a polygamous marriage over family honour. (Photograph by Vincenzo D'Alto)

Hamed Shafia (centre), his father Mohammad and Tooba Yahya are escorted to the Kingston courthouse in 2011. (Vincenzo D’Alto)

Indeed, if Hamed really was born in 1991, it would mean the three siblings who arrived right after him—in successive years—are also 12 months younger than originally believed. Sahar, whose gravestone marks her birthdate as Oct. 22, 1991, would have been born in 1992, according to this new version of the truth. Another daughter supposedly born in 1992 (S.S., who cannot be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban) would have actually arrived in 1993. Same story for the next in line (a brother, A.S., who also can’t be named.) Although he grew up assuming he was born on Nov. 28, 1993, his family now insists his real date of birth is Nov. 28, 1994.

Which brings us back to that blurry family photograph—which the Crown made sure to include in its 62-page Supreme Court filing opposing Hamed’s leave to appeal. If the date stamp on the bottom right corner is correct—and nobody on either side has suggested it isn’t—the image is arguably the biggest blow to Hamed’s new birthdate scenario.

In fact, the photograph appears to depict exactly what the Shafias had long maintained pre-conviction: that Hamed, born Dec. 31, 1990, would have been about 2½ years old in May 1993. That Sahar, clearly able to walk when the photo was taken, would have been exactly 19 months. And that baby S.S., safely in her mother’s arms, would have been five months old.

How does the photo stack up to the revised timeline? The little boy in the front row would be 1½, not 2½. Although that may be possible, the child looks closer to 2½. Sahar? She would be just seven months old in the picture—yet able to stand up on her own. And baby S.S. (her face now blacked out to protect her privacy) wouldn’t be in her mother’s arms at all. She would be inside her womb, still seven months away from delivery.

“The fresh evidence is not credible, and it would not be in the interests of justice to admit it under any test,” reads the Crown’s memorandum of argument. “There is no merit to this application.”

The high court is still deciding whether to hear the appeal. A ruling could arrive any day.

Hutchison did not respond to an interview request from Maclean’s that included specific questions about the photograph. But his court filings make clear that his client believes the new evidence is credible enough to be sent back to a trial court, where a judge can decide what is conclusive and what isn’t.

“The Repsondent spends much of its memorandum re-arguing the facts,” reads his reply to the Crown’s brief, filed Feb. 17. “All this demonstrates is that there were two sides to this story, well-grounded in elements of the evidence…The Applicant deserves an opportunity to present this evidence in an appropriate forum—that is all he seeks.”


Portrait of a young ‘honour killer’

  1. So the court is not being asked to readjudicate his guilt but rather to determine if evidence that he was, at the time of the crime, a ‘young offender’, under Canadian law. Big whoop! So what’s the story? He’s still guilty and will be fittingly punisghed under Canadaian law as it applies to ALL Canadians. It’s a matter of natural justice and basic fairness. Thee’s nothing to rage about here.

    It’s one of those things that’s supposed to make Canada a ‘better place’ than the benighted land his ‘family’, according to this article, brought with them to blight Canada. One of those things that ‘real’ Canadians might expect for themselves but seem happy to deny to anybody ‘different’.

    Macleans must he a helluva place to work. A bedlam of ‘freedumb’ with a ‘population’ of such deep-thinking inmates, ‘at work’ all the time, echoing each others’ idiocy. Or a ‘war zone’ where a growing point of conflict between Canadians gets ‘played out’ with every new ‘outrage’. For unlike most of ‘the aggrieved patriots’ I’ve run into, they just don’t mutter under their breath and begone, Macleans gives them a megaphone.

  2. What a barbaric culture this family belonged to.

    • Well we put our unwanted women in convents, or burned them at the stake.

      • And what are you drinking or smoking today? You really need to seek some help before you get any worse.

        • Never made it out of grade school eh?

          Well if you want something more recent…..a woman is killed ‘by her partner every 6 days in Canada…..so let’s not be sneering at others for their barbarity’

          • How many parents and brothers join together to kill many members of their family? This was a planned and deliberate action and many “partner” murders are passion driven.My grade schooling also taught critical thinking.

        • If your grade school had taught anything you’d know family members were commonly involved in such things.

          We are no different than anyone else on earth.

          • Speak for your own family.
            My Dad was a wonderful father, who tried to be fair, and provide a warm home and good food, and the odd vacation.
            And he was a veteran of WW.
            He never beat my mother, nor did any of his brothers, or hsi sisters’ husbands.
            Same on my mother’s side.

          • a family “murders” a girl and it’s acceptable because she looked “lewd”, “perhaps was raped”, had premarital sex, wouldn’t agree to be pre-arranged marriage, give me a break. And, in light of the motion before Parliament… the timing of this media coverage further inflames the discussion…

            Where’s Kellie Leitch when we need her.

            Suggest you check out Cdn Govt Site about Honour Killings. There is nothing honourable about that! : http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/fv-vf/hk-ch/p3.html

          • Children are abused , molested and killed every day……if your family didn’t do that you are lucky.

            A woman is killed every 6 days in Canada….by her partner.

            If it doesn’t happen to you…….you’re lucky.

            Canadians….Christians….are no different than anyone else on the planet.

          • https://ca.news.yahoo.com/rodica-emil-radita-trial-1st-070000742.html

            I would NEVER defend the barbican act of murder but to deny that members of families plan and carry out deliberate actions to kill other family members in Canada? Hello? Children are being starved to death by parents and grandparents. They are being kept in their own filth. If you don’t know this to be true, you are reading the news or you are willfully ignorant of the facts. These are no acts of passion and neither are the murders of partners and the hands of other partners when the beatings have taken place on a regular basis unless you are referring to the occasions when the partner who is the victim of regular domestic violence finally strikes back and starts the bed on fire with the abuser passed out in it. That critical thinking you are talking about, does it include instances when one partner kills the children to punish the other partner? I suppose you believe that is a crime of passion. It is not. It is revenge which we all know is a dish best served cold. Let us not pretend that all a-holes come from one religion or one culture or one ideology. Otherwise, how would be explain the murderous tendencies of people such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others who were not Muslim. In Canada, we cannot afford to lie to ourselves, that every psychopath is of a certain religious persuasion. It isn’t accurate.

      • Where in Canada are we burning women on stakes? Many Islamic countries are known for killing women who have been raped, or taking off their coverings, or asking questions. Just of late one teen girl had her nose cut off by her husband because he thought she talked to a man , or one had her ears cut off for objecting that her husband take. a 8 yr old for his new wife.

      • And how long ago was this?
        We don’t live in the middle ages any more.

        Not sure why you figure this miserable looking psychopath should be out roaming around our streets, as a young offender.
        But he was close enough to being an adult to be tried as one.
        And what he did seems to be a common occurence in Islamic countries.
        Hopefully, justice will prevail, and he will continue to be imprisoned for a long, long time. Shame that these freaks get to keep their “Canadian” passports.
        It would be nice to strip them of all their assets, to subsidize the police and court costs, and send them back to Afghanistan. Seems like a slap in the face to taxpayers, that our hard earned money is wasted on traxh like these animals.
        I would rather my tax dollars be spent on something more productive and positive- like helping the homeless working poor in Vancouver, or animal rescues.
        These people seem to want to live in the middle ages.
        Fortunately, most Canadians have evolved.

        • I said nothing about the young man……I said brutality to women exists everywhere, so get off your high horse.

    • Stop blaming “the culture”. Certainly these people behaved in a barbaric manner. That doesn’t give you license to condemn everyone who shares the same culture.

  3. He murdered his sisters, Canada is not an Islamic country yet. Unacceptable. Ever heard of Taqiyya Taqiyya is an Islamic juridical term whose shifting meaning relates to when a Muslim is allowed, under Sharia law, to lie.

    • Canada doesn’t have Sharia law. It’s been removed in most Muslim countries.

      We DID have Jewish law which is much the same thing .

      Christian law allowed for the murder of women in the Middle Ages. Women are killed by their partners in Canada today.

      The point is Muslims and Jews and Christians are all the same anywhere on earth.

      • No they are not. Try doing a little research, instead of spewing your rhetoric.
        The majority of violent terrorist attacks, since 2001- have been committed by Islamic extremists.
        And the Middle Ages were a long, long time ago. As a group, we have evolved, and have enough common sense to question what is written in the Bible.
        Islamic people are so brainwashed, they haven’t.
        Terrorism post-9/11 has been concentrated in predominantly Muslim countries as a result of radical Islamic ideologies and sectarian violence.

        • No religion on earth is pro-women.

          All religions on earth are anti-women

          And nothing much has changed with that since the Middle Ages

        • The two shootings in Canada that targeted police, one in Alberta, one in the Maritimes, were not committed by Muslims. The shootings at schools have not been perpetrated by Muslims. The Batman shooting in the theatre in the US was not perpetrated by a Muslim. If we are going to talk about molestations by religions in Canada, the Catholic Church has a far worse record yet we barely pay it lip service. No one talks about banning Catholics or their priests or how the religion has brainwashed people, which is strange when one considers that there were so many victims that a diocese the size of Boston actually went bankrupt due to payouts to victims of molestation and yet the pope remains very popular. The only explaination I came to is that there is perspective when it comes to the Catholic Church…an understanding that not every Catholic is a potential molestor whereas with the Muslim religion even famous basketball players like Kareem Abdul Jabar are suspect. They have detained Mohammad Ali’s son twice at a US airport to interrogate him about his faith and his father was born in the US and was a US icon. There is truly no perspective. Even Cat Stevens who became Muslim after a near drowning was on a no fly list. Cat Stevens? In people’s minds, everyone is a jihadist in waiting. People can’t tell the difference between a moderate, a traditionalist and a jihadist and they don’t want to be educated. It is like saying every Christian is an alt-right Evangelical who is a libertarian white supremacist and should be treated like a prospective Timothy McVie. If that seems reasonable to you, carry on.

          • Well said!

      • Historically, you are right. But we have long passed the Stone Age and have, in some countries and under enlightened governments, passed laws which outlaw a lot of the practicess you describe, not withstanding some of the religions where such murders might be condoned. Murder, whether it is of husbands killing wives or wives killing husbands, or of brothers killing sisters, is illegal in Canada.
        As usual, you are just attempting to throw in your “monkey wrench” to see what possible outcomes it may have, without adding to the commentary.

        • This was meant to be a reply to Emilyone.

          • I simply point out reality.

            You just don’t like it.

        • https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Turcotte_killings

          Have you heard about Guy Turcotte or maybe I should call him Dr. Guy Turcotte….Canadian cardiologist who murdered his own two young children in a messy divorce and then apparently attempted suicide and got himself found not criminally responsible because he was drunk and depressed but the court reversed it. Shame really because he wanted to remarry, have more children and go back to practicing medicine. His ex-wife, the mother of the deceased children really had an issue with his plans and and approached Stephen Harper, then PM. Drunkenness is not a defence for murder or drunk driving causing death wouldn’t be a charge under the criminal code. Dr. Turcotte is definitely not Muslim.

  4. It is well known that people in That part of the world falsify documents to suit their purposes! I know, because I grew up there!

    • People everywhere falsify documents.

      It is, and always has been, a common practice.