Tooba Mohammad Yahya (inset) lasted just 10 minutes on the witness stand before she was overcome by emotion that choked her words. The Montreal woman, who is accused – along with her husband and oldest son – of murdering three of her daughters and her husband’s first wife, was the first witness Monday after a 25-day break in the sensational alleged honour killing case that has been underway in Kingston, Ontario since October.
“I told Rona, ‘Take your child,’ ” Yahya, 42, testified Monday morning, as she explained her decision to give her third-born child, Sahar, to Rona Amir Mohammad, who was her husband’s infertile first wife. Shafia married Yahya, without divorcing Mohammad, so that he could have children.
The practice is legal and accepted in the family’s native Afghanistan. They moved to Canada in 2007 but concealed the polygamy.
Yahya, husband Mohammad Shafia, 58, and their son Hamed, 21, 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 Mohammad. The trial, which began in October, is expected to conclude this month.
The victims, who had drowned, were found inside a submerged car discovered June 30, 2009, at the bottom of a shallow canal in Kingston. Prosecutors allege the deaths were arranged by Shafia because he felt his daughters had shamed him by taking boyfriends, dressing in revealing clothes and disobeying him. Mohammad wanted a divorce, jurors have heard.
An expert on the ancient practice of honour killing testified that in some cultures, it is believed that a family’s tarnished reputation can be restored by murdering those who are disobedient, typically wives and daughters.
The accused claim that Zainab took the car without permission and crashed it into the canal.
Yahya, whose testimony may last several days, was not asked Monday by her lawyer, David Crowe, about the deaths of the four family members. She testified that her children were never punished physically, save for one incident in which Shafia hit several of the children because they returned home in the evening after curfew. She said her husband’s preferred method of punishing the children was to badger them.
“He used to talk a lot,” she told jurors. “He was persistent on something. He used to talk about some mistake which the children did.
“He used to go on and continuously; he was just swearing at them and continuously talking about that for weeks.”
She also said her daughters were not forbidden from wearing makeup and they were not ordered to wear traditional Islamic head coverings, though they were taught that they should wear them.
“The parents have to teach the religion to the children,” Yahya testified, adding that she also explained to her children that Islam forbids a parent from forcing a practice on a child.
Yahya said her children were forbidden from having boyfriends and girlfriends.
“Me and Shafia and also Rona, we decided that [until] the time that the children graduated from school and they … show their diploma to us, they are not allowed to have girlfriend or boyfriend or to get married,” she testified. Yahya said the children were told about the rule when the family lived in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
She said she had never seen her daughters wear headscarfs, contrary to the testimony of several witnesses, including teachers, who testified that they saw some of the girls wearing headscarfs to school.
Yahya testified that after Mohammad’s death, the family found her diary, a document presented at the trial by prosecutors. In the document, Mohammad wrote that she was isolated and abused in the family, particularly by Yahya, and lived a miserable life. Mohammad claimed Yahya conspired to “separate” her from Shafia.
“I don’t see anything like this, to separate her husband from her … and she never complained to me,” Yahya testified.
She said she made no effort to hide or destroy the diary, which was later found by police when the family’s St. Leonard home was searched.
In the diary, Mohammad wrote of an incident in which Sahar tried to kill herself. Mohammad claimed that Yahya said that Sahar could “go to hell” and kill herself.
“I never say anything like this,” Yahya testified. She said Sahar ate some powder from packaging material but she spit most of it out and was not seriously hurt. When Mohammad arrived to discover the incident, she began yelling at Yahya and accusing her of harming Sahar, Yahya testified.
Yahya said the incident began because Sahar was upset that her sister Zainab had taken a piece of her clothing. She said Sahar had developed a habit of dramatically stating she would “kill herself” whenever she couldn’t get her way or whenever she was upset.
The trial heard previously from social workers, teachers and child protection workers in Montreal who feared that Sahar was suicidal and depressed, particularly in 2008.
Yahya will be back on the witness stand Tuesday.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)
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