Shafia honour killers lose appeal at Ontario’s top court

Mohammad ShafiaNearly 10 years after Afghan native Mohammad Shafia brought his 10-member family to Canada, Ontario’s top court ruled that the controlling and abusive father got a fair trial when he was convicted, along with his second wife and eldest son, of murdering four family members. Shafia, his wife Tooba and son Hamed were not victims of prejudice and are not entitled to new trials, the Court of Appeal for Ontario says, in a judgment released today (Nov. 2, 2016). The three were each convicted in January 2012 of four counts of first-degree murder. Sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti 13 and Rona Amir, 50, who was Shafia’s first wife in the polygamous family, were found dead June 30, 2009, inside a sunken car resting at the bottom of a shallow canal in Kingston, in eastern Ontario.

The victims (from left) Geeti, Sahar, Zainab, Rona

The victims (from left) Geeti, Sahar, Zainab, Rona

Jurors during the murder trial heard that Mohammad Shafia orchestrated the killings, believing it would restore his family honour. He felt it was tarnished because three of his daughters violated strict cultural rules around modesty and obedience and Rona supported them. Jurors heard that Hamed researched locations and means to commit the murders.

The trio appealed the convictions, arguing that their trial was unfair because of “overwhelmingly prejudicial evidence” and “cultural stereotyping.”

They attacked the evidence of University of Toronto professor Shahzrad Mojab, who was permitted to testify at the trial about the origins of honour killings. She wasn’t permitted to offer an opinion about whether the deaths of the four Shafia family members were honour killings.

“Dr. Mojab’s evidence was overwhelmingly prejudicial and should not have been admitted,” the killers claimed, in a document filed with the court. “Her evidence invited the jury to improperly find that the Appellants had a disposition to commit family homicide as a result of their cultural background and to reject their claim that they held a different set of cultural beliefs.”

The manner in which Mojab’s evidence was presented “created enormous prejudice” and invited jurors to decide contested factual issues by relying on “cultural stereotyping,” according to the document.

“By reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes of violent and primitive Muslims, it created the risk that the jury’s verdict would be tainted by cultural prejudice,” the document states. It was prepared jointly by three lawyers representing the trio and argues that while some of Mojab’s evidence may have been admissible, the judge failed to “limit its scope and its potential for prejudice.”

The appeal court rejected the arguments.

“The evidence of Dr. Mojab was properly admitted as expert opinion evidence,” the court states, in its decision.  “Its introduction was closely monitored to ensure what the jury heard did not exceed what the trial judge permitted after two pre-trial motions to exclude it. Neither the trial Crown nor the trial judge invited or instructed the jury to use this evidence in any impermissible way in deciding whether the Crown had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Shafia also argued that the court should reconsider the conviction of Hamed because of new documents that he claimed he had obtained that purportedly show Hamed was not 18 at the time of the murders.

“The interests of justice do not warrant the reception of the proposed fresh evidence documents,” the court ruled.

In refusing to consider the material, the court noted that “tellingly, the only accurate source of information about Hamed’s date of birth – Tooba – has not filed an affidavit on the motion. Her police statement and trial evidence supports the conclusion that Hamed was 18 when the deceased were killed.”

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Everything you need to know about the appeal court judgment, in less than four minutes:

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