An allegation so unthinkable

In a trial where nothing made sense, jurors now face the difficult task of determining the truth

An allegation so unthinkable

Photograph by Vincenzo D'Alto

The Crown and the defence agree on at least one thing: as murder plots go, it was amateur hour.

The whole point (allegedly) was to cover up the mass “honour kill” by making it look like an incompetent wrong turn. Daughter takes car keys, daughter swerves off the road and into the Rideau Canal. But nothing about the “accident” scene looked accidental. Just to get to the water’s edge, the supposedly out-of-control Nissan had to jump a high curb, make a hard left around some rocks, then a quick right around a stone wall. As one investigator testified, “it would have to be driven there on purpose.”

Stupid plan. Simple conclusion. (Or, as another officer put it: “You guys aren’t hit men. You guys don’t know how to cover your tracks properly.”)

But what the jury in Kingston, Ont., must decide, as deliberations finally begin, is whether the absurdity of it all actually benefits the prosecution or the accused. In other words, was the alleged plot so boneheaded that it’s simply not believable? “If the plan was to make it look like an accident, why choose such a difficult place to get to?” asked Peter Kemp, one of the defence lawyers. “You’re trying to make it look like an accident, not make it look like someone knew exactly what they were doing.”

It’s been almost three years since the Shafia sisters (Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13) were found at the bottom of the Kingston Mills locks, floating alongside Rona Amir Mohammad, their dad’s first wife in a secretly polygamous Afghan clan. In the days to come, their closest relatives—Mohammad Shafia, father and husband, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, mother and fellow wife, and Hamed Shafia, brother and stepson—will learn their fate. Charged with four counts each of first-degree murder, a guilty verdict would carry an automatic sentence: life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

The Crown insists it was a crime of honour, motivated by a Muslim father’s disgust over his daughters’ secret boyfriends and other disobedient behaviour. But as closing arguments kicked off, lawyers for mom and dad stuck to the same script: why? Why would a multi-millionaire businessman—a “cosmopolitan” entrepreneur who travelled the world and spoiled his seven children—concoct such a dumb scheme? “There are just too many questions that can’t be ignored in this investigation,” Yahya’s lawyer, David Crowe, told the jury.

Why would Shafia tell two different relatives that he was going to kill Zainab? (“Totally unbelievable,” said Kemp, his lawyer.) Why would he give police permission—without hesitation—to examine the Lexus if he knew it was damaged while ramming the Nissan into the water? If Shafia didn’t want Rona around anymore, why didn’t he just divorce her? And why would the three of them commit quadruple homicide in such a public place, risking the chance that someone might drive by? “It is much more probable,” Kemp said, “that Zainab did in fact take the keys, panicked at some point, and drove directly into the canal.”

There is, of course, ample evidence to the contrary. Shattered bits of Lexus headlight found at the canal. Hamed racing back to Montreal to retrieve the family’s other car before alerting the cops to their “missing” relatives. Shafia ranting on wiretaps, calling his dead daughters “whores” and urging the devil to “s–t on their graves.” By the time this issue of Maclean’s hits the stands, prosecutors will also have reminded the jury that all four victims, abused and essentially imprisoned, were desperate to escape their home in the weeks before they drowned.

Whatever the verdict, this case has captured the country’s attention like few crime stories ever have. Dozens of witnesses, weeks of testimony, and more than 150 exhibits have revealed a chilling tale of tradition and culture, of love and expectations. The core allegation is simply unthinkable to most Canadians.

The actual courtroom has been its own separate story. Packed to capacity nearly every day, it was renovated specifically for the complexities of this trial. In the centre, a bulletproof prisoners’ box holds husband, wife and son, ankles shackled, armed officers on either side. To their left are two soundproof booths, where Dari interpreters translate the proceedings, in real time, to a gallery full of black headsets. Just reaching the end of this trial has been a legal and logistical feat, well-planned and perfectly executed.

Unlike, prosecutors say, what happened in the early morning darkness of June 30, 2009. Now it will be up to the jury to separate the absurd from the unthinkable, the lies from the truth.

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