Rona Amir Mohammad did not flee abuse by her husband Mohammad Shafia and his second wife because she feared her husband would kill her, jurors at Shafia’s murder trial were told. “She said if she leaves, her husband will kill her,” Fahima Vorgetts (inset) testified Tuesday. “She took it seriously because her husband told her he will kill her if she leaves.” Vorgetts, a U.S.-based volunteer with Women for Afghan Women, a human rights organization, said she began taking phone calls from the Montreal woman in the spring of 2008, after a referral through Vorgetts’ aunt.
Vorgetts also is a native of Afghanistan. She said Rona seemed desperate, and called her two to three times a week for roughly a year.
Rona, along with Shafia sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, were found dead in a submerged car in a canal in Kingston on June 30, 2009. Three weeks later Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son Hamed, 20, were arrested and each charged with four counts of first-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty.
Rona was Shafia’s first wife, whom he married in his native Afghanistan, before the family moved to Canada in 2007 and settled in Montreal. Prosecutors allege the victims died in an honour killing orchestrated by Shafia because he believed his daughters had shamed him and his first wife had become a source of constant friction in the household.
Vorgetts said Rona was not allowed to use the phone in the family’s St. Leonard house so she would go to a payphone in a nearby park in the evening and call. She said many calls were marked by long bouts of crying as Rona recounted constant abuse and humiliation.
“She did say that he beat her up, the husband beat her up … he was pulling her hair,” Vorgetts testified. Rona also complained of being kicked by Shafia.
“She said that her husband and her husband’s wife were abusive towards her and she needs help, what to do, where to go,” Vorgetts told jurors. “She did not have any information, knowledge about what to do in this country.”
Vorgetts said she urged her to go to a shelter, a church or to police, but Rona told her she was too afraid to leave and was warned by Shafia that he’d make sure she was shipped back to Afghanistan if she went to authorities. Vorgetts testified that Shafia held all of Rona’s identity documents, including her passport, so Rona believed she could not flee to another country, where she had relatives.
“She said that her husband’s wife would mock her, put her down in front of the family’s guests,” she testified. Rona told Vorgetts that Yahya told Rona, “you are a slave, you are a servant.”
Though Yahya gave birth to all of the family’s children, Rona had helped to raise them, the trial has heard.
“She loved the girls, she loved the children and she said that it’s very difficult to leave the children,” Vorgetts testified.
Defence lawyer Peter Kemp, who represents Shafia, asked Vorgetts why she didn’t call police in Montreal herself if she believed Rona’s life was in danger.
“I asked Rona to do it and that was her call,” Vorgetts replied. She could not offer any details of any injuries Rona might have suffered as a result of the abuse she claimed she endured.
Jurors already have heard that Rona asked Shafia for a divorce but he had refused to put anything on paper. An immigration lawyer who testified Tuesday said that if Shafia’s polygamy was revealed in Canada, the second marriage would have been considered invalid and Rona would have had legal rights to property and support.
Montreal lawyer Sabine Venturelli said if Shafia’s hidden polygamy had come to light, it would have had serious repercussions on the family.
“I think immigration [officials] would have withdrawan residential status of all members of the family,” testified Venturelli, who had handled an application by Rona for permanent resident status. Other family members already had status.
A sibling of Rona who traveled thousands of kilometres from France to appear at the trial concluded her testimony Tuesday with an animated soliloquy.
Diba Masoomi, who lives in France and was a younger sister of Rona, had testified Monday that Rona told her, in a phone call, that she overheard Shafia plotting to kill her and Zainab.
During questioning by defence lawyer Patrick McCann Tuesday, Masoomi insisted she was telling the truth. She said she would “swear on Qur’an” that she is being truthful and said she would be “in fire in hell” if she lied. She said she has suffered terribly.
“To be a witness is very hard,” Masoomi said, her voice rising. “I want nothing. I just want justice. I came here and I ask from this place just to have justice.
“Court should ask from Tooba why it’s happened.”
“That’s enough,” McCann said, interrupting her. Moments later he walked away from the lectern, signaling an end to his questioning.
Masoomi repeated her plea when Mr. Justice Robert Maranger thanked Masoomi and said she could leave.
“I just want from the Government of Canada to have justice and we should find out from Tooba…”
“That’s good, ” Maranger said, cutting her off.
Jurors also heard Tuesday from a boyfriend of Sahar Shafia, who said that they had a secret, four-month relationship before her death. The young Montreal man cannot be named because of a court order that protects his identity until he has completed his testimony.
He testified that the relationship was kept secret because Sahar was afraid to let her family know about it.
He will be back on the witness stand Wednesday.
Wednesday would have been Geeti Shafia’s 16th birthday.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)