“I would be a dead woman” - Macleans.ca

“I would be a dead woman”

Sahar Shafia was desperate to keep her boyfriend a secret—but her alleged “honour killers” already knew

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In one photo, Sahar Shafia and Ricardo Sanchez are cuddling on a living room chair, her arm wrapped around his. In another, snapped outside, Sahar is smiling in a pair of sunglasses, his hand resting on her stomach. The backgrounds change—parks, restaurants, sidewalks—but the poses rarely do. Some of the shots show only Sanchez, hat backwards.

Police found all the pictures, and dozens more, stored on Sahar’s cell phone, recovered from the same underwater car that contained all four dead bodies. Weeks later, detectives armed with a search warrant found printouts of those very same shots inside the Shafias’ Montreal home. Some were zipped into her brother’s suitcase, packed for an overseas trip. Two, depicting only her boyfriend, were stuffed in the centre console of her father’s Lexus.

“Do you have any idea how these photos ended up in a suitcase belonging to Hamed Shafia?” Gerard Laarhuis, one of the prosecutors, asked Sanchez.

“No,” he answered.

“Do you have any explanation as to how these ended up in the Lexus owned by Mr. Shafia?” he asked.

“No.”

The answer, of course, is self-evident: police seized the phone as soon as it was fished from the Rideau Canal, which means the photos found at the house must have been developed before the car plunged into the Kingston Mills Locks. As hard as she tried to keep her romance a secret, it appears that Sahar’s mom, dad and brother—now charged with four counts each of first-degree murder—knew exactly what she was up to.

The 17-year-old was found on June 30, 2009, floating inside a sunken Nissan Sentra beside two of her sisters (Zainab, 19, and Geeti, 13) and their father’s first wife in the polygamous clan, Rona Amir Mohammad. According to prosecutors, what was staged to look like a tragic car accident was in fact a quadruple “honour kill” meant to restore the Afghan family’s reputation, tarnished by the girls’ Westernized, rebellious behaviour. As their father declared on one police wiretap: “They betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed our tradition, they betrayed everything.”

All three suspects—Shafia, a 58-year-old millionaire businessman; Tooba Yahya, his second wife; and Hamed, their eldest son—have pleaded not guilty.

On Wednesday, his second day in the witness box, Sanchez provided the jury with more details about his four-month relationship with Sahar, including the bruises he once noticed on her left leg and right arm. “I asked her what had happened to her,” he said, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. “She said that she had hit herself, that she had fallen at school. I said it didn’t look like a bruise from a fall.”

“What did it look like to you?” Laarhuis asked.

“It looked like a blow, like when somebody hits you,” he said. “I told her to tell me the truth. She kept saying: ‘No, I fell, I fell.’ ”

Now 23, Sanchez was a newly arrived immigrant from Honduras when Zainab, a classmate, introduced him to her younger sister. They could barely communicate (his French was not much stronger than hers), but Sanchez says he and Sahar immediately fell in love. Their plan, he testified, was to run away from her family and get married in his home country.

During cross-examination, Yahya’s lawyer, David Crowe, asked Sanchez how his parents would have reacted to having a Muslim daughter-in-law.

“My parents’ reaction would have been a normal reaction,” he said. “Our religion, as Christians, is not as strong as the Muslin religion. It is a religion that is normal. I know Christ, and I know that my parents would not have asked her to convert to the Christian religion. Why would they?”

Throughout his testimony, Sanchez admitted that he didn’t know specific details about Sahar’s home life, other than her strict curfew (8 p.m.) and her desire to hide him from her parents. But Irma Medina, Sanchez’s aunt, said Sahar confided in her on numerous occasions, explaining exactly what life was like for a teenage Shafia girl. “She told me that she would be a dead woman if her parents learned that she was going out with Ricardo,” Medina testified. “They would kill her.”

Once, Medina said, Sahar told her she was going to admit the truth to her mom and dad. “She told me she was going to be a dead woman if she talked to her parents about her relationship with Ricardo,” Medina said, repeating that line again and again. “But she said she was going to do it because she loved him would love him until death.”

Also Wednesday, the jury heard from another employee of “Batshaw Youth and Family Centres,” Quebec’s Anglophone child protection agency. In May 2008, almost a year before Sahar met Sanchez, her vice-principal filed a complaint on her behalf. Evelyn Benayoun was the intake worker who took the phone call that afternoon, and she spoke to both the vice-principal and Sahar. Just days earlier, Sahar had swallowed a handful of pills in a failed suicide attempt.

“She said her home situation was psychologically unbearable,” Benayoun testified. “She couldn’t take it anymore and that was the reason she wanted to commit suicide.”

In her report, Benayoun documented Sahar’s long list of complaints: Forced to wear the hijab. Physical abuse at the hands of her brother. Emotional abandonment. “Her mother wasn’t talking to her and none of her siblings were allowed to speak to her,” she told the jury. “When I initially asked what she wanted, she said: ‘I want my mother to speak to me.’ ”

Benayoun was concerned enough to classify the complaint as a “Code 1,” dispatching a worker to the school the same day. “She told me she was extremely scared, specifically because she wasn’t allowed to share family information with outsiders,” Benayoun said. “She knew she was doing that, and she was scared of the repercussions.”

As the jury has already heard, Sahar backtracked as soon as the social worker arrived. Sobbing uncontrollably, she said she just wanted to go home and that everything she claimed over the phone wasn’t true. Two days later, the social worker met her again. Sahar was wearing a hijab and insisting that “things were better.” She was 16.

Today—November 30—would have been Geeti’s 16th birthday.