When police searched Hamed Shafia’s Montreal bedroom in the summer of 2009, they found a short essay written for a recent school assignment. The title was: “Importance of Traditions and Customs.” Today, inside a Kingston, Ont., courtroom—where Hamed and his parents are on trial for the mass “honour killing” of four family members—the essay has a new title: Exhibit #2.
“Traditions and customs are to be followed till the end of ones life,” Hamed wrote in his opening line, his mistakes marked by a teacher’s pen. “It doesn’t matter at all weather your close to the community following the specific traditions or living millions of miles away. Traditions and customs of a person is like his identity and what makes him special.”
Hamed was 18, toothpick skinny with a mop of curly black hair, when he printed those ominous words. The eldest son of a wealthy Afghan entrepreneur, he had immigrated to Canada less than two years earlier, and already enjoyed what most in his adopted country can only dream about: a Lexus in the garage, a wallet full of cash, and the inevitable inheritance of his dad’s multi-million-dollar business. (In one memorable car-ride conversation, captured by a police wiretap in the days before their arrests, father asked son if he had any small bills because “sometimes they don’t accept hundreds” at the gas station.)
But as his essay reveals, young Hamed was not easily corrupted by money or cars or other Westernized excess. His “traditions and customs” were so important—his family’s reputation so paramount—that he allegedly helped his mother and father execute three of his own sisters because they had the nerve to wear revealing clothes and fall in love. “They betrayed Islam,” his father declared during another intercepted rant. “They betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed our tradition, they betrayed everything.” (His father’s first wife in the polygamous clan, Rona Amir Mohammad, was also found in the Rideau Canal, floating alongside her “stepdaughters” in a sunken sedan.)
On New Year’s Eve, Hamed will turn 21. When court is in session, he sits between his parents in a glass prisoner’s box, his hair neatly trimmed, his ankles cuffed. Across the street, at the campus of Queen’s University, hundreds of undergrads his age walk to class and drink lattes and behave like young Canadians do—the very same offence that was allegedly enough to snuff out his sisters’ lives. Last week, as the jury watched a recording of Hamed’s post-arrest interrogation, a field trip of high school students took in the proceedings. Some looked older than him.
What they saw on the screen was the last stand of a fiercely loyal son, a soft-spoken but unwavering young man who not only stuck to his suspicious story, but repeatedly asked to see the photographs of his sisters’ corpses. Months later, that same man would completely alter his version of events in the misguided hope of freeing his beloved parents from prison. “If there is any punishment,” he would proclaim, “let me have it.”
Hamed was born in Kabul. His father, Mohammad Shafia, had two wives: Rona, who was infertile, and Tooba Yahya, who would bear all seven of the children. When investigators found Hamed’s essay, they also stumbled upon Rona’s diary. Written in Dari, it offered a rare glimpse of life inside the Shafia house—including the time she took a nasty fall while cradling baby Hamed. “Through the grace of God both of us recuperated,” Rona wrote. “My husband, though, treated me very badly after that and he used to say time and again, ‘You dropped my son,’ and I used to reply, ‘I didn’t do it on purpose, I was hurt too,’ but he used to say, ‘I don’t care about you, you hurt my son.’ ”
Hamed was still a toddler when the family fled the Afghan civil war and settled in Dubai, where Shafia made his fortune. Hamed was not the oldest child; his sister, Zainab, was born a year earlier. But by the time the family relocated to Quebec in 2007, 16-year-old Hamed was more of a third parent than a sibling, keeping close tabs on all his sisters.
Ammar Wahid experienced Hamed’s iron fist first-hand. The two attended the same high school, and on Valentine’s Day 2008 Wahid sent Zainab a card. She replied with an email: “firstly be aware of my bro,” she wrote; “if my bro is around, act like complete stranger.” On the witness stand, Wahid recalled that when Hamed did discover their secret romance, Zainab never came back to school.
As the jury has been told numerous times, Zainab eventually worked up the courage to run away from home, taking refuge at a women’s shelter. When Hamed phoned 911, the responding cop heard much more than a missing persons report. Sahar, 17, told the officer that her brother slapped her in the face and made “his own rules” when their dad was away on business. Geeti, 13, begged to be placed in foster care.
All three sisters—Zainab, Sahar and Geeti—would be dead within weeks.
Prosecutors say the accused trio, obsessed with restoring the family’s tarnished honour, booked a Niagara Falls vacation as a ruse to lure the girls (and their stepmother) to a watery grave. During the midnight drive back to Montreal, the threesome allegedly used one car, a Lexus SUV, to push the other, a Nissan Sentra, over the edge of the Kingston Mills locks. Investigators who scoured the scene found smashed pieces of the SUV’s headlight, and scratch marks from both vehicles confirmed a bumper-to-bumper collision.
But even before the forensic tests came back, police were suspicious of the victims’ dry-eyed relatives—especially Hamed, who just so happened to drive back to Montreal right after the “accident” and crash the Lexus into a parking lot pole, an apparent attempt to mask the previous damage.
Father, mother and son told police the same initial story: they checked into a Kingston motel, Zainab asked for the car keys to retrieve some clothes, and when they woke up the next morning, the foursome was gone. But their words recorded on the wiretaps, which were also played for the jury last week, tell a much more incriminating tale. “Be I dead or alive, nothing in the world is above your honour,” Shafia said. “Isn’t that right, my son?”
The very next morning, father and son were in the back of a police car, charged with four counts each of first-degree murder. “Don’t worry, my son,” said Shafia, now 58.
“I’m not worrying, only about my mother,” Hamed replied.
“It’s okay, my son.”
Once inside the interrogation room, Hamed’s biggest concern remained the same. “Is my mom in one of the cells?” he asked Det. Steve Koopman. “If I can just see her on my way back . . . ”
“Probably not,” the officer replied. “We normally don’t have the prisoners interacting, especially male and female sides of it.”
“Even if it’s a mother and son?”
“Right now you guys are co-accused.”
Like Koopman, Sgt. Michael Boyles tried to wrestle a confession from the son by pinning blame on the father. “You’ve been caught for four murders, but I don’t think that you were the one that made this decision,” he said. “I don’t think you were the one to say: ‘I’m tired of my sisters getting Westernized. I’m tired of the disrespect. I’m tired of them not doing what they should. I want them killed.’ I don’t think you said that, I really don’t. I think your father has problems.”
But Hamed didn’t cave. Instead, he asked to see the full-page photos of his dead sisters. “They deserve to know the truth,” Boyles said, as Hamed stared at the departed. “I’m not trying to disrespect your father, but your father is a certain type of man. And I think he expected certain things from some of your sisters, and I think that wasn’t happening and he dealt with it the wrong way. He dealt with it as a traditionalist, how his culture, how his upbringing has taught him to do. And he’s raised you like that. I’m not going to sit here and tell you your culture’s wrong or our tradition’s wrong. What I’m here to tell you is what you did in Canada is illegal.”
Hamed stood up and asked to be returned to his cell. “I’m getting a bit of a headache,” he said. “I just want to go.”
Another three months would pass before Hamed offered some semblance of an explanation—not to police, but to a translator/amateur investigator hired by his father. During a jailhouse meeting on Nov. 7, 2009, Hamed told Moosa Hadi that he did, in fact, follow his sisters out of the motel parking lot that night, just to make sure they made it back safely after buying phone cards at a nearby gas station. The pumps, though, were closed, and while looking for a suitable place to turn around, Hamed said he rear-ended the Nissan. Moments later, while picking up shards of shattered headlight, he heard the splash.
According to Hamed’s new narrative, he beeped his horn, lowered a rope into the water—and then drove the Lexus back to Montreal because he had some “business” to deal with. He never told his parents what happened, he said, and didn’t call police because they would “blame me” for allowing Zainab to drive without a licence.
At the end of his audiotaped statement, Hadi asked Hamed one last question. “What do you want to be in the future?”
“I wanted to study business,” he answered.
Under different circumstances, Hamed probably would have done well in college. The teacher who graded that essay gave him 70 per cent.