The Shafia home was “joyful,” nearly devoid of violence and was governed by a liberal father who “wanted only the best” for his seven children, according to the brother of three teenaged Montreal girls (Sahar inset) found dead in a sunken car. In roughly two hours of calmly delivered testimony Monday, the boy, who is now 18, offered explanations and contradictions for many seemingly incriminating bits of evidence revealed at the murder trial of his parents and brother over the past seven and a half weeks.
The boy, who was called as a defence witness, cannot be named under a court order that shields his identity.
“He always wanted the best for us,” the boy testified of his Afghan father, Mohammad Shafia.
Shafia, 58, his wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, who turned 42 Monday, and their son Hamed, 20, are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty to killing Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, who was Shafia’s first wife.
The victims were found inside a submerged Nissan Sentra discovered June 30, 2009, at the bottom of a shallow canal in Kingston, Ont. Prosecutors allege the deaths were an honour killing, orchestrated by Shafia because he felt his daughters had shamed him by taking boyfriends, dressing in revealing clothes and disobeying him. Rona Mohammad reportedly wanted a divorce.
The accused have said that they believe their rebellious daughter Zainab took the family car on a joyride without permission and crashed it into the canal. She did not have a drivers licence.
The trial heard from half a dozen school and child protection officials, who testified that Sahar was afraid of her father and older brother, depressed, suicidal and desperate to escape from her home in spring of 2009.
“Sahar was very happy at home,” the boy testified. “It was very happy, joyful.”
He said Sahar frequently made up stories at school so that she and her siblings would get sympathy and special treatment. As a result, he said, the Shafia children were able to skip classes, commit minor acts of vandalism and pass despite poor grades.
“We kind of did whatever we wanted and there was no consequences,” he testified. “We didn’t really take it that serious; we were just fooling around with it.”
The boy said he knows of only one incident of violence in the home. He said he and two sisters came home around 9 p.m. one evening in early April 2009, which was a violation of their curfew to be in before dark.
The boy said their father questioned them about their late arrival and they got defensive and “did stuff to aggravate him.”
“After a few minutes, dad came and slapped me and my sisters,” he testified. He said he was slapped several times because he would not stop talking when his father asked him to keep quiet. He said his father never hit him on any other occasion and he did not see him hit anyone else in the family at any other time.
In a video recording of an interview July 21, 2009, also played for jurors, the boy told a Kingston Police officer that he intervened when his father began hitting his sisters during the April incident.
“I said, ‘You can’t touch us like that,’ ” he says, on the recording. His father swore at him and told him to shut up, he told the officer in the interview. Near the end of the interview, he told the officer: “My dad, he never should have laid a hand, finger on any, on any one of us.”
In court, he qualified some of his comments from the July interview.
He said he simply went along with the police officer when the detective insisted that investigators knew that Shafia had hit Zainab because of his anger over her impetuous marriage to a young Pakistani man.
“I was trying to give him what he wanted to hear,” the boy testified.
He also rejected an account of a meeting between him and his sister Sahar, who was secretly dating a young Honduran man in Montreal in the months before her death.
Ricardo Sanchez testified last month that he was at a restaurant with Sahar when the boy showed up. He pretended to be the boyfriend of Sahar’s female friend who was with them, because Sahar feared the reaction of her parents if her brother reported back to them.
The boy testified that he didn’t know about Sanchez until he read news reports of his testimony at the trial.
The boy testified that he fell asleep in the family SUV on the evening of June 29 as they drove home to Montreal from Niagara Falls, Ont. He said his father shook him awake at 1:56 a.m. – he had checked the time – got out of the vehicle and went into a Kingston motel room where he flopped on a bed.
A few minutes later, he said his sister Zainab came in and asked to borrow his cellphone but he shooed her away and fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he was told that four family members and the family’s Nissan were missing, he testified.
The boy said that while the family was on vacation in Niagara Falls, Zainab had secretly taken the keys to the Nissan and had driven it around in the motel parking lot, with him in the passenger seat.
The boy told the police officer, in the July 2009 interview, that he didn’t believe his parents murdered his sisters for disobedience when he did worse things.
“So why not me, that’s what I’m thinking,” he said.
Crown lawyers have not yet questioned the boy.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)