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.
Prosecutors have told a jury in Kingston, Ont., that Mohammad Shafia was a tyrant of a father, an Afghan immigrant so obsessed with restoring the “honour” of his family that he drowned his own daughters because they wore make-up and dated boys and had dreams of their own. But during the opening moments of his post-arrest interrogation, broadcast in court for the first time on Wednesday, Shafia looks hardly the menace, slouched in a wooden chair and barely whispering his responses.
Wearing slacks and sandals, he tells the cop on the other side of the table that being slapped in cuffs was a “violation of his right,” that his life is “ruined,” and that the person who really killed his kids “should be found” and punished.
More than half an hour ticks by before the accused mass murderer shows any real emotion. The topic? The cellphone bills that one of his dead daughters racked up.
“Four hundred dollars, three hundred dollars, the bill was coming,” he says, visibly upset. “I said I couldn’t pay it.”
The man asking about the bills, Inspector Shahin Mehdizadeh, is not interested in the dollar figure. He shows Shafia the phone records because they seem to bolster the police’s theory: that he, his wife, Tooba Yahya, and their eldest son, Hamed, massacred three of his daughters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13) and his other wife, 53-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad.
“Sahar is talking to her friends every second or sending texts,” the officer tells Shafia. “Perhaps you know her. She was your daughter.”
“Yes, yes,” he answers.
The evening of June 29, 2009, was no exception. The polygamous family of ten—husband, two wives, and seven children—was on its way home from a family vacation in Niagara Falls, piled into two vehicles: a black Nissan Sentra and a silver Lexus SUV. Sitting in one of the cars was Sahar, rifling off text after text to pals back home in Montreal: 7:59 p.m., 8:03 p.m., 8:07 p.m., 8:10 p.m., 8:11 p.m.
“All the time she is using it,” Mehdizadeh says, pointing to the printout.
“She was always using it like that,” her father answers.
At 10:54 p.m., while the clan was stopped at a McDonald’s just east of Toronto, Sahar had a 36-minute conversation with a friend. But when that friend phoned back at 12:25 a.m., nobody picked up. From that moment on, she didn’t respond to another text or answer another call. One of those incoming messages, sent at 1:36 a.m., bounced off a cellphone tower near the Kingston Mills Locks, where the four bodies were discovered the next morning inside the submerged Nissan.
Father, mother and son have all pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder. They initially told police that after checking into a Kingston motel for the night, Zainab, the eldest of the doomed sisters, asked for the keys to the Sentra to retrieve some clothes. The next morning, they claimed, she and the others were nowhere to be found.
Prosecutors tell a much more shocking story, alleging that Shafia, Yahya, and Hamed staged what appeared to be a tragic accident in order to restore the family’s Muslim honour, blemished by the girls’ so-called “treacherous” behaviour since arriving in Canada in 2007. By the time Mehdizadeh introduces himself to Shafia on the morning of July 23, 2009, he has already coaxed a quasi-confession out of his wife. The night before, in the same creaky, uncomfortable chair that Shafia now sits, Yahya admitted that the threesome was at the locks when the car splashed into the water, but that she “became unconscious” and doesn’t remember anything else.
“My children, my kids, I loved them with my heart, with my heart,” Shafia tells Mehdizadeh, a Farsi-speaking Mountie dispatched to Kingston for the sole purpose of interviewing the accused “honour killers” in their mother tongue. “They were pure and sinless kids. They were our children.”
The inspector is doesn’t hide his cards. “I want to tell you that we are certain that you, your wife, and Hamed had involvement in the killing of them,” he says, his words subtitled for the jury of seven women and five men. “You are a wise man. I will prove to you that you had planned this.”
Shafia responds with a line that he will repeat over and over for the next two hours: “We don’t lie.” (Except, of course, all the kids not named Hamed, who “told a lot of lies” to a lot of people about the toxic household they lived in and the repeated beatings they endured.)
Along with cellphone records, Mehdizadeh explains exactly what police do when they find a corpse, let alone four: they scour the scene for physical evidence, interview potential witnesses, look for surveillance cameras, and, when a suspect surfaces, plant wiretaps. He then pulls out an overhead photo of the alleged Rideau Canal crime scene. Shafia, now 58, says he recognizes the place. “I came with my wife and put flowers over there.”
Mehdizadeh says that a homeowner who lives on the other side of the water was on his balcony at 2 a.m. on June 30, 2009, and saw two cars, including an SUV with its headlights on. Twenty minutes later, the witness heard a splash and a horn. “My wife loves her children more than herself,” says Shafia, growing more combative by the question. “She loved her children more than me and still does.” Besides, he says, how could they throw four grown people in the water? “They would have screamed.”
Raised in Iran, Mehdizadeh tells his target that he understands the ancient concept of gharait, or honour, and that sometimes when immigrants come to countries like Canada the daughters want “to do this and that, things that are not Islamic, like to have boyfriends or work.” Trying to bait Shafia, he goes so far as to say that Zainab “wasn’t a good girl.” But Shafia doesn’t bite, insisting that he would allow his daughters to choose their own husbands—even that “Pakistani boy” Zainab was seeing. “When people plan to come here [to Canada] they know all these things,” he says. “The boys and girls are in the same school…When you come here, you accept this here.” (The jury has heard otherwise—that Zainab was petrified of her father, banned from leaving the house, and once ran away to a women’s shelter).
Again, Mehdizadeh switches focus, asking about Rona, the eldest of the victims fished from the Nissan. To police—and to immigration authorities—Shafia identified her as a cousin, but in truth, she was his first wife. He only married Tooba Yahya, now his alleged co-conspirator, because Rona could not bear children. Yet even when presented with a wedding photo, Shafia denies that Rona was his bride. “It was her birthday or something,” he says of the picture. “This is not marriage.”
Why were shattered pieces of a Lexus headlight found at the locks? Why was the Nissan’s back bumper dented and scratched? Who used the SUV to push the Sentra into the water? “As much as you want, you can lie to me,” Mehdizadeh says. “But you telling me a lie, it’s not like I will leave this room and say: ‘I am really sorry, please, you can go and continue your life.’ You are here for the murder of four people. Four people. It is not a joke.”
“I know it,” Shafia says.
He also knows, thanks to the inspector, that police installed listening devices in his home and in his third car, a Pontiac mini-van. (In one intercept, Shafia says of his daughters: “May the devil shit on their grave!” In another, he declares that “there is nothing more valuable than our honour.”)
“You are a father,” Mehdizadeh says. “Maybe they were not very good girls, and you might have thought: either they should listen to me or they couldn’t be alive?” He then shows Shafia, one by one, the photos of the dead. “They have told us that you have pushed the car in,” the officer says.
“Why should I do this to my children, for God’s sake?” Shafia responds.
“I am not sitting here to tell you that you have done it or haven’t done it. I know you have done it.”
“I want to know why,” Mehdizadeh says.
“I want to know why,” he repeats.
“Your own children. Where is your honour?”
“My honour is honour,” Shafia answers.
“You don’t have honour.”
“No, don’t say this word.”
How can a man have honour, and not weep at the sight of his daughters?
“I am upset,” he says. “Crying is not in my control…I had lots of cry…I have suffered so much…I have lost my heart.”
“You haven’t suffered so much because I had been listening to you,” Mehdizadeh says, referring to the wiretaps. “You haven’t suffered so much.”
Shafia doesn’t budge from his story, not an inch. More than once, he taps the inspector’s knee for emphasis.
“Swear to Allah.”
“I don’t tell lie.”
“I am not ashamed in my conscious mind.”
“I wish God would have taken my life and spared their lives. I would have been ready.”
Mehdizadeh has heard enough. He collects the papers on the table and stands up to leave. “A small Nissan car became their grave,” he says, glaring down at Shafia. “Whoever does this, he is a criminal, he is a person who in fact doesn’t have a heart.”
“You are absolutely right,” Shafia answers.
“He is dishonourable,” the inspector says. “He is the worst, dishonourable person in the world.”
“Yes, I agree,” says Shafia. “The worst disrespectful, the worst ill-mannered person in the world.”
Still standing, Mehdizadeh tells Shafia to “remember” those words when his day in court finally comes. “You don’t have even a little honour,” he says, walking toward the door. “The honour of your family is in the hands of your women.”