A history of violence at the Shafia home

At the “honour killing” trial, a cry for help

Rona (left) and Sahar Shafia (Canadian Press)

Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial, which is expected to run into December.

Mother and son have both confessed, in separate tape-recorded statements, that they were there when the car-turned-coffin plunged into the canal. Beyond that, their recollections couldn’t be more different. Tooba Yahya told police that she fainted after hearing the splash, and doesn’t remember anything else about “the accident.” Hamed Shafia, meanwhile, claimed that both his parents were actually fast asleep at a motel, and that his sister, Zainab, somehow steered the sedan into the Kingston Mills Locks while he and his Lexus were parked nearby. Hamed, of course, did what anyone would do if four of his closest relatives drove into a body of water. He tossed down a rope and wiggled it around, like a fisherman hoping for a bite.

As absurd as both stories sound, there is one common denominator: in neither narrative does Hamed dial 911.

Tooba? “Maybe he didn’t have his cell phone.”

Hamed? “I thought that if I call the police, they would blame me that [Zainab] didn’t have a license.”

Yet there was the same Hamed Shafia, just ten weeks before his sisters perished, frantically doing what he should have done that night. Nobody was drowning. Nobody was in imminent danger. But he had the phone on his ear, desperate for the cops to come to the family’s Montreal condo because Zainab—at age 19—had “run away.” When a few minutes passed without a knock at the door, Hamed called back. “They didn’t come yet,” he told the dispatcher.

Sister submerged in a car? Dangle a rope, then drive away.

Sister leaves home, with a note explaining her desire to be free? Calling all cars.

According to prosecutors, there is an obvious reason why nobody dialed 911 in the early morning hours of June 30, 2009: a quadruple execution was underway, and criminals like that don’t tend to report themselves. The Crown contends that what was supposed to look like a tragic joyride was actually a mass “honour killing” meant to restore Mohammad Shafia’s good Muslim name, tarnished by disobedient daughters who dated boys and flaunted their beauty. Floating beside Zainab in the sunken Nissan Sentra were two of her little sisters—Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13—and their dad’s first wife in the polygamous clan, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53.

A jury will ultimately decide whether father, mother and son are guilty of mass “honourcide,” and the panel has already heard overwhelming evidence of the forensic and wiretap variety. But on Tuesday, jurors got the clearest glimpse yet of everyday life inside the Shafia home, and how one decision—Zainab’s gutsy escape—rattled the clan to the core.

And likely sealed her fate.

Hamed made those two 911 calls on April 17, 2009, a Friday. But his older sister’s quiet rebellion began more than a year earlier, when Ammar Wahid, a high school classmate in Montreal, sent her a Valentine’s card. She responded with an email. “firstly be aware of my bro,” she warned. “if sometimes wanna talk come in the library. and if my bro is around act like complete stranger…i don’t want to give him the slightest idea that we r friends.”

For any of Mohammad Shafia’s daughters, having a boyfriend—or even talking to a boy—was a cardinal sin (punishable, it’s alleged, by death). So when Zainab invited Ammar to her house one day in March 2008, she made sure it was safe: her parents were visiting Dubai, her younger siblings were at school, and Hamed was out. But when her brother unexpectedly returned home, and found Ammar hiding in the garage, the romance was over. Zainab would never return to Ammar’s school.

Court has heard that she became a prisoner in her own bedroom, permitted to leave only for meals and to use the bathroom. Nearly a year would pass before Zainab, hijab on her head, was allowed to enroll at a different school. “i miss you bad,” she wrote to Ammar in December 2008. “i still rem the way u told me u love me the first tym.” (Zainab, ever the rebel, also said she figured out a unique way to wear the Muslim head scarf. “i take out a bit of ma hair and I tie the hijab at back and put on some big circle earings. i will try sending u a pic.”)

In early 2009, the couple was once again meeting in secret, at the library, in parking lots, at McDonald’s. “She wanted to have her freedom, and to marry me,” Ammar testified on Tuesday. By April, Zainab worked up the nerve to write her note and walk away. “She said: ‘Come get me,’ ” Ammar told the jury, recalling the phone call he received that morning. “ ‘If not, I’m taking a taxi and I’m leaving.’ ”

Neither of the 911 operators that spoke to Hamed seemed particularly concerned that a 19-year-old woman had left home on her own free will. (Hamed himself quoted Zainab’s letter to one of the dispatchers: “I want to live my own life.”) But for the Shafias, the development was devastating, so much so that when some of the younger siblings found out, they were afraid to even go home. Instead, they asked a stranger on the street to phone 911.

Anne-Marie Choquette, a Montreal constable, responded to the call with her partner. According to an agreed statement of facts read to the jury by prosecutor Laurie Lacelle, Choquette encountered four of the Shafia children huddled on a corner: Sahar, Geeti and two others, who are still alive and can’t be identified because of a publication ban. “Their mother was reported to be afraid for their lives because the oldest daughter Zainab had left the house,” Lacelle said. “The children were concerned about the reaction of their father to this information.”

After escorting the kids back to the house, Choquette “received disclosure that there was abuse and violence at home.” The officers then interviewed each of the children alone, outside. Sahar said Hamed slapped her, and that her father hit Zainab “because he did not like her boyfriend.” Geeti said that a week earlier, after coming home late from a mall, she was beaten by both her brother and her dad, who “threatened that he was going to kill them.” Both Sahar and Geeti “told police that they wanted to leave home because there is a lot of violence in the home. They said they were afraid of their father.”

When interviewing one of the other children, Choquette “observed a mark near [the] right eye.” Although the child provided a statement to police, the specifics have not been disclosed in court. However, this much is clear: when Shafia came home later that evening, that particular child recanted, insisting that the earlier statement “was not true.” That family member (again, no identifying details can be revealed) stuck to the same revised story again and again—a chilling detail that has hovered over the trial since day one. Might there have been five bodies inside the Nissan? Did one of the other Shafia children escape death by denying what police originally heard?

What is certain is that neither Sahar nor Geeti changed their stories. They “stopped talking” after their father came home, but they didn’t recant.

At 9 p.m., a worker from Quebec’s child and family services arrived at the house, and after voicing “cautions” to the parents, “decided to continue the investigation on Monday.” Constable Choquette believed “there was lots of evidence that permit her to lay a criminal charge. Her explanation for not laying a charge is that in Quebec, police have a protocol with child and family services, and they decide whether to lay charges.”

In a different part of town, at the “Passages” women’s shelter, Zainab was settling in for her first night away from home. On the witness stand, employee Jennifer Brumbray testified that Zainab was not “our typical clientele” and “kind of stood out” because of her fashionable outfits and bubbly personality. But the abuse she endured at home was no less disturbing, Brumbray told the jury. “She spoke of the psychological and physical violence at the hands of her brother. She was afraid of him.” (During a brief cross-examination, Shafia’s lawyer, Peter Kemp, suggested that Zainab must have been well taken care of because “she showed up at your door with a suitcase full of designer clothes.” His strategy flopped.)

As promised, authorities did continue their investigation the following Monday. Detective Laurie-Ann Lefebvre visited the children’s school, along with a child protection worker, to conduct more interviews. Geeti said she wanted “immediate placement” in foster care. “I asked her: ‘What is going on?’ ” Lefebvre testified. “She said she had no freedom. She said she wanted to be like her friends and to be able to do things without asking permission, to have friends and to go out.”

Sahar complained about her brother’s iron fist—she referred to him as “The Boss”—and said she was only allowed to leave the house to go to school, or if a relative was with her. “She was well dressed, she had jewelry, and nice make up,” said Lefebvre, who asked Sahar how her parents could be so strict, yet allow her to wear such westernized clothes. “She said she would change at school in the morning, and again before going home.”

When Lefebvre sat down with the third child, the one who recanted, the story was the same. “Nothing came out of it,” she told the jury.

Lefebvre also managed to speak to Zainab, tracking her down at the shelter through her boyfriend, Ammar. “I asked her the reason she left the house,” she said. “She told me the rules were too strict. She couldn’t go where she wanted, she was being supervised by the family, and if she wanted to go out she had to be accompanied by a family member.” Zainab also confirmed that Hamed slapped Sahar in the face.

Lefebvre concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to lay a criminal charge, and left the file in the hands of the province’s youth protection services. Nothing more was done.

In the meantime, Shafia and Hamed were conducting their own investigation, visiting Cst. Choquette at the police station to see if she had any leads on Zainab’s whereabouts. “Neither Hamed nor Shafia was aggressive, but they were persistent,” says the agreed statement of facts. “They wanted something to be done. They absolutely wanted to find Zainab.”

Two weeks later, Zainab did return home, assured by her mother that things would change. Two months after that, her lifeless body would be among the four pulled from the Rideau Canal. The 911 call came from a stranger.

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