Just three days after a Montreal couple’s three teenage daughters and “aunt” were found dead in a submerged car two years ago, they offered a tearful explanation for the bizarre tragedy. The four died in a joyride that ended tragically when the eldest daughter took the family car without permission, Mohammad Shafia (inset) and his wife Tooba said. They suggested that their daughter, an unlicensed driver, crashed the car into a shallow canal in Kingston, Ontario.
Three weeks later, the Montreal businessman, his wife and his adult son Hamed were arrested and each charged with four counts of first-degree murder. Canadians were shocked by the allegation that it was a mass honour killing and that the adult victim was Shafia’s first wife.
The trio, who maintain their innocence, will go on trial in a Kingston courtroom this week.
Shafia is “very anxious” but eager for his day in court, says his Kingston lawyer.
“[He’s] as well as can be expected for someone who has been in custody for two years,” Peter Kemp told me.
Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba, 41, and their son Hamed, 20, have been in custody since their arrest in July 2009.
This past week, a jury of six men and six women was chosen to hear the case, which is expected to run eight to 10 weeks. Prosecutors will call up to 58 witnesses, beginning Oct. 20, including 21 police officers. Four Montreal officers are on the prospective witness list.
The accused appeared relaxed as they watched the three-day juror selection process that ended Oct. 13. In clear voices, each formally pleaded not guilty to the charges several times, as groups of prospective jurors were selected.
On one day, as Shafia was led out of the courthouse in shackles, he responded with a wave and a big smile when a reporter shouted, “Salaam,” meaning hello in Dari, one of two official languages of Afghanistan.
On June 30, 2009, a compact car was found submerged in the Rideau Canal in Kingston, a historic tourist city on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Inside were the bodies of three Shafia sisters, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti, 13, and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, who was Shafia’s first wife. The trio has been in custody since their arrests.
Shafia had taken two wives in his native Afghanistan before bringing his 10-member family, including seven children, to Canada in 2007. The family also lived in Pakistan, Dubai and Australia. The wealthy Kabul businessman established several businesses in Montreal, including an import/export operation, and the family settled in an apartment in St. Leonard. At the time of the arrests, Shafia was building a luxurious, 6,000-square-foot home in an exclusive neighbourhood in Brossard, a suburb in southeast Montreal. The house has since been sold.
Jurors were told this week by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Robert Maranger, that it’s alleged “it was a staged car accident and a drowning committed by the accused.”
Honour killings are commonplace in some countries in South Asia and the Middle East, where entire families conspire to kill a girl or woman who does not obey strict cultural codes around modesty, chastity and obedience.
The Shafia trial was supposed to have begun in April, but in January this year, Hamed Shafia fired his Kingston lawyer and replaced him with veteran Ottawa criminal defence lawyer Patrick McCann.
“He is, I think, glad that this trial is finally underway,” McCann said. “He, of course, by changing lawyers, effectively caused about a six-month [delay] but I think he’s happy the way things are going.”
Kingston lawyer David Crowe, who represents the accused mother, declined to comment.
McCann and Kemp would not say if they plan to put their clients on the witness stand to testify.
“I think it’s very difficult in a first-degree murder trial with a jury to not call your witness because [jurors are] going to ask themselves, ‘Why didn’t he call this person?’ so that’s sitting there on top of me the whole time, but you know, I’ll have to make the decision when I see what the Crown’s able to prove,” Kemp said.
He said he likely will not make an opening statement to the jury when the trial begins Thursday. The veteran of more than a dozen murder trials likes to reserve his statement until prosecutors are finished presenting their evidence.
“You wouldn’t want to put your foot in your mouth by making a submission to the jury before you hear what the Crown’s evidence is because it can change,” Kemp said.
The trial will be conducted in four languages, including Spanish, French and Dari. Hamed Shafia speaks English but his mother and father speak only fractured English. Dari is their first language.
During the arraignment, Mohammad Shafia responded, “No guilty,” when asked for his plea.
To accommodate the Dari speakers, a hi-tech system has been installed to permit three interpreters, who are working inside soundproof booths erected in the courtroom, to translate all of the proceedings simultaneously between Dari and English. Everyone in the courtroom wears headsets connected to wireless receivers.
A significant number of prospective jurors were rejected because they admitted they had hearing difficulties. The judge cautioned that because of the technology and the complex interpretation process, jurors must have good hearing.
All prospective jurors were asked if their ability to consider the evidence without bias or partiality would be affected, knowing that the accused are from Afghanistan and are “of the Islamic faith.” Many people were rejected because they replied yes to the question.
(This story appeared first in the Montreal Gazette)