(SEE MY UPDATE, Nov. 4, –Shafia to be released from hospital)
The trial of three Montreal residents accused of murdering four family members could continue, even if one of the accused is incapacitated or dies, according to a criminal procedure expert. The nine-day-old trial of alleged honour killers Mohammad Shafia, 58, (inset) his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son Hamed, 20, was abruptly halted Thursday morning when it was revealed that the father had been taken to hospital late Wednesday evening because of a “serious medical emergency.” Police and the man’s lawyer would not reveal the nature of the problem. The trial, slated to run for up to 10 weeks, was adjourned until Tuesday.
“One of the accused has taken ill,” Mr. Justice Robert Maranger told jurors, who could see that Shafia was missing from the prisoner’s box. “It was a medical emergency, a fairly serious one.
“We’re going to adjourn [the trial] until Tuesday for the lawyers to sort of get the feedback on the status of the medical situation.”
In an interview outside the courtroom, Shafia’s Kingston lawyer Peter Kemp said that his client was expected to undergo surgery Friday at a Kingston hospital. He said he didn’t know the nature of the problem and couldn’t say how long Shafia might need to convalesce.
“My understanding is, there’s some sort of a surgical procedure scheduled for [Friday] and I suspect the doctor’s going to say, ‘Well, until I do the surgery, I won’t know.’ ”
Kemp said he got a phone call at home at 7:30 Thursday morning from a Kingston police officer, telling him about the development. The news plunged the complex case into a legal limbo governed primarily by the wide-ranging discretion of the trial judge.
Queen’s University law professor Don Stuart said that if Shafia remains ill for a long time and is unable to come back to court, prosecutors could seek to continue without him.
“The Crown could bring a motion to sever the trial of [Shafia] and carry on with the other two,” he said. Shafia could be tried later, once he has recuperated. Severances are normally considered before trials, but can be done after a trial has begun.
Shafia, his wife and son are being tried jointly, under provisions in law that allow the prosecution at one time of several people accused of committing a crime “that arises out of the same transaction.” The same rules provide that in the “interests of justice,” the accused can be tried separately.
“It just means whatever the judges think it means,” Stuart said.
Defendants also can seek severances.
Stuart said the other two accused could oppose a severance by arguing they would be denied the right to cross-examine Shafia, should he testify.
“Maybe the defence counsel would not want the trial continued,” Stuart said.
Staff Sgt. Chris Scott, the Kingston police officer in charge of the case, said, in an interview, that he learned of the medical problem at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
“It’s strictly a medical issue, no injuries from any assault or any third-party intervention,” Scott said. “I have no information it was a suicide attempt.”
Scott said Shafia was taken first to a small hospital in Napanee, the town just west of Kingston where the Quinte Detention Centre is located. It is a provincial jail where the three accused are held each night during the trial. Scott said Shafia was scheduled to be transferred to Kingston General Hospital.
As of noon Thursday, Shafia had not been moved to the bigger Kingston hospital, suggesting that he is not critically ill, according to hospital sources. The hospital does not publicly discuss patients. The Gazette learned that Shafia has been taken from jail to the Kingston hospital six times in the past year for treatment of ongoing medical problems.
The judge told the jury that the trial has been going “very smoothly in terms of time” and he hopes it can resume as soon as possible.
“We want to, obviously, keep the trial going,” Maranger said, before sending jurors home.
Crown prosecutors had presented 17 of a possible 58 witnesses since the trial proper began Oct. 20. The 18th witness, an RCMP officer from British Columbia, was still in the midst of his testimony about his interrogations, in the Farsi language, of two of the accused, when the trial was stopped.
The six-hour video recording of the officer’s interrogation of the accused mother was played in court Wednesday and revealed the woman crying uncontrollably as she looked at snapshots of her children. As her videotaped sobs filled the courtroom, her husband also began to cry in the prisoner’s box. Shafia held his hand to eyes and turned his head, as if he could not bear to watch the video, played on three large video monitors.
The interruption in the trial likely poses significant scheduling problems for prosecutors and police.
Several witnesses from Europe were booked to fly to Canada later this month to testify. Witnesses from Toronto and Montreal were scheduled to appear next week.
Shafia sisters, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, and Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, were found dead in a submerged Nissan Sentra at the bottom of a shallow canal in Kingston on June 30, 2009. The father, mother and son were arrested roughly three weeks later in Montreal.
Prosecutors allege that the trio pushed the Sentra into the canal with another family vehicle and tried to pass the killings off as a tragic car crash. They suggested their eldest daughter took the car on a joyride without permission.
Jurors have been told that Shafia, a native of Afghanistan, was angry and felt his honour had been tarnished because his daughters had boyfriends and wore revealing clothes. On secret police wiretaps, he was overhead saying that the girls were “treacherous” and acted like “whores,” Crown lawyer Laurie Lacelle said, in an opening address to the jury. Shafia was recorded saying: “There is nothing more valuable than our honour.” The complete wiretaps have not yet been presented to the jurors.
Honour killing is an ancient cultural practice, still prevalent in some Middle Eastern and South Asian societies, in which women and young girls are murdered by family members who believe it is the only way to cleanse a family’s shame. Disobedience, immoral behaviour and loss of virginity, even through rape, can provoke the murders.
Shafia moved his family from Dubai to Canada in 2007. The wealthy businessman, who imported and exported goods, including cars, settled in St. Leonard. He was building a sprawling, million-dollar home in an exclusive Brossard neighbourhood at the time of the arrests.
(This appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)