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.
If the allegations prove true—if Mohammad Shafia really did drown his own daughters because they were “whores” with boyfriends—then Tuesday must have been an excruciating afternoon for the accused “honour killer.” Sitting in the prisoners’ box, wife and son cuffed beside him, Shafia could only stare in silence as one of those boyfriends told the jury just how much he loved 17-year-old Sahar. They kissed. They cuddled. They fantasized about running away together. “It was very serious,” he said of their four-month relationship. “We could get married, I was telling her. And she was agreeing.”
The witness, who cannot be identified because of a temporary publication ban, spent an emotional chunk of his testimony reading out some of the text messages he typed to Sahar in the weeks before she died. He spoke slowly, the paper in his hands shaking.
“I love you with all my heart and I can’t love anybody more beautiful than you because you are like the air that I breathe every morning, the sun that warms me up,” he wrote on May 26, 2009, one month before his girlfriend was fished from the Rideau Canal. “I want only you to be the owner of my heart.”
On June 28—just one day before Sahar’s death—the boy sent her a flurry of messages. At the time, the Shafias were vacationing in Niagara Falls, a family road trip that prosecutors now claim was part of a “planned and premeditated” mass murder. “I just want to see you here with my own eyes,” the witness said, reading from his page. “The sky is beautiful and many beautiful things are here in the world, but you are the only beautiful thing.”
More than once, the witness paused to compose himself. “If I had the moon, the sun, the sky or the sea or the stars at this moment, I would give all of it to you, my love,” he continued, quoting his next message. “The only thing that I have at this time is my love and my heart and many kisses to give you forever, my love.”
Sahar’s body was found in a sunken Nissan Sentra at the bottom of the Kingston Mills Locks, floating alongside two of her sisters—Zainab and Sahar, 19 and 13—and their “stepmother,” Rona Amir Mohammad, their dad’s first wife in the polygamous household. They were discovered on June 30, 2009. Over the next three days, Sahar’s frantic boyfriend dialed her cell phone 22 times. Each call was forwarded to voicemail.
According to prosecutors, what was staged to look like a tragic car accident was in fact a cold-blooded quadruple execution aimed at restoring the Afghan family’s honour and reputation, supposedly tarnished by the girls’ Westernized, sexualized behaviour since immigrating to Canada two years earlier. All three suspects—Shafia, 58; his second wife, Tooba Yahya, 41; and their 20-year-old son, Hamed Shafia—have pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder.
Before Sahar’s boyfriend took the stand, the jury heard more details about “Auntie” Rona’s lonely existence in Canada—and a possible motive for her alleged murder.
A wealthy Afghan businessman who made his fortune in Dubai, Shafia had two wives: Rona, his first and infertile bride, and Tooba, 17 years his junior and the mother of all seven children. When the clan moved to Canada, where polygamy is illegal, Shafia left Rona with relatives in France while the others settled in Quebec. When she finally did join them in November 2007, her visitor’s visa indicated that she was Shafia’s cousin.
Sabine Venturelli, a Montreal immigration lawyer, was able to extend Rona’s visa on two separate occasions, and she told the jury that an application for permanent residency had been filed on her behalf. But after November 2008, neither Rona nor Shafia followed up on the progress. He paid her bill—in cash, like usual—but the application was essentially abandoned.
Laarhuis asked Venturelli what would have happened if the government discovered Shafia’s polygamous arrangement. “They would have withdrawn residency for all the family,” she answered, citing “false information.” (Venturelli also said that she knew nothing about the true family dynamic until after Rona died.)
The trial, now in its sixth week, has heard more than enough disturbing evidence of Shafia’s disgust at his “treacherous” daughters. In one seething rant recorded by a police wiretap, he urged the devil to “sh– on their graves.” But the reason behind Rona’s alleged slaying is not so clear. Did Shafia fear that her application to stay in Canada would blow everyone else’s cover? Might the immigration department figure out that she wasn’t his cousin?
What is clear is that Rona’s short time in her new country was pure hell, rife with abuse and misery. Ostracized by Shafia and her fellow wife, the 53-year-old spent hours wandering through the parks of their St.-Leonard neighbourhood and using pay phones to confide in family members outside the country. “Most every time she called, she would be crying,” said Fahima Vorgetts, a distant relative and Afghan women’s rights activist who spoke to Rona twice a week during her last year of life. “If we would talk for half an hour, she would be crying the whole time.”
Vorgetts, who lives in Virginia, said she first heard from Rona in the spring of 2008, after her aunt by marriage (Rona’s sister) asked for her help. During their covert conversations, Rona would talk about how she wasn’t allowed to use the home phone, how her husband kicked her and pulled her hair, and how Yahya taunted her with threats. “She would say: ‘You are not a wife, you are a slave, you are a servant,’ ” Vorgetts testified. “Her husband would also humiliate her, and beat her up.”
Rona wanted to run away, Vorgetts said, but she was too petrified to follow through. “She said if she left the house and went to the police, her husband would kill her. She took it seriously because her husband told her that he will kill her if she leaves.” But death was not her only fear. Ironically, Rona was worried about the same thing that supposedly triggered her murder: honour. “She was afraid she would taint the family name,” Vorgetts said. “A divorced woman is looked down upon in the Afghan society, especially at that age, and she didn’t want the family name to be tainted by her actions. She was concerned about her own family’s reputation, and Shafia’s family.”
One of Rona’s sisters, Diba Masoomi, also urged her to go to authorities—especially after Rona told her that she overheard Shafia, Yahya and Hamed whispering about a plan to kill Zainab and “the other one.” Rona was certain they were referring to her. “She was afraid,” said Masoomi, who flew from France to testify. “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.’ ”
On Tuesday, after defence lawyers finished their cross-examination, Masoomi was too upset to leave the witness stand. “I want nothing, I just want justice,” she said, her voice growing louder. “I came here and I ask from this place just to have justice.” Even after Justice Robert Maranger ordered her to step down, she continued. “I just want from the government of Canada to have justice.”
But on this day, it was Sahar’s boyfriend who provided the closest thing to justice—detailing his “dishonourable” love story to the very people who believed (allegedly) that it was a sin worthy of death.
Sahar’s older sister set them up. At the time, he was taking French-language night classes at the same school as Zainab. Over the next four months, ending with her death, the star-crossed couple met in secret, at lunch hour and after school. Sometimes, they would hang out with Zainab and her boyfriend.
“Were you and Sahar affectionate with each other—holding hands, hugging, kissing—in front of Zainab?” Laarhuis asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “We would embrace. We would kiss.”
But Sahar was desperate to keep their relationship under wraps, for reasons she never really explained, but really didn’t need to. “She was scared of her family,” the boyfriend said. “Can you imagine if her father had known?”
Once, while the couple was at a restaurant near Sahar’s school, another of her siblings stormed over, demanding to know what was going on. (The sibling cannot be identified). Not only did the boy tell the relative that he had just met Sahar—but he kissed one of her friends to prove his story. Afterwards, Sahar was not convinced it worked. The jury has already heard that she was terrified by the encounter, and worried about how her father would react when he returned from a business trip to Dubai.
The family of ten left for Niagara Falls on June 23, 2009. “She said she was going to talk to her parents about our relationship,” the boyfriend testified. “I told her not to do it. When she came back from Montreal it would be better for her to do it then.”
“Do you know if she talked to her parents about your relationship?” Laarhuis asked.
“I don’t,” he answered.
His testimony continues Wednesday morning.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.