A Montreal woman accused, along with her husband and son, of murdering four people including three of her daughters, told jurors that she lied to police in her first interrogation in a bid to save her eldest son. During Tooba Mohammad Yahya’s (inset) second day on the witness stand, she offered the admission about her changing explanations to investigators about critical events on June 29 and June 30 of 2009.
On June 30, a sunken Nissan Sentra was found at the bottom of a shallow canal in Kingston. Inside were the bodies of three of Yahya’s children, daughters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13. Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, also was found dead inside the car. Three weeks later, Yahya, 42, her husband Mohammad Shafia, 58, and their son Hamed, 21, were arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty. Rona Mohammad was Shafia’s first wife, whom he married in his native Afghanistan.
Prosecutors allege that the victims died in an honour killing, orchestrated by Shafia because he believed his daughters had shamed him by consorting with boys, dressing provocatively and disobeying him. His first wife had asked for a divorce, jurors have been told.
Yahya told an officer, on the day that the trio was arrested, that she was at the canal early that morning when the Nissan plunged into the water. She said she did not see what happened – it was very dark – and she fainted from shock. The next day, she recanted the claim that she was at the canal when the car went into the water.
In her testimony Tuesday morning, Yahya said she feared that Hamed was going to be tortured by authorities so she fabricated the story that she had been at the canal.
“I would have done whatever I was able to do … and [thought], ‘Please don’t touch Hamed and he’s innocent,’ ” Yahya testified.
She said she would have given up her life to save him. Yahya testified that she realized, as she sat in a police cell overnight, that “one lie” can cause a lot of problems, so she took it back.
Under questioning by Crown prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis, Yahya refused to concede that it was a lie when she was first interviewed by police and told them that Mohammad was her husband’s cousin.
“I was not thinking about those small stuff,” she said, in explaining why she didn’t reveal that Mohammad was Shafia’s first wife in the polygamous family. “It didn’t cross my mind to bring that up.”
“Well, it did cross your mind and what you decided to do was tell a lie,” Laarhuis shot back.
“No, that wasn’t the case … he wasn’t an immigration lawyer,” Yahya responded. She explained that the family had told immigration authorities Mohammad was a cousin so that she could get into the country and she didn’t believe it was necessary to tell police investigating the deaths anything different.
“You did not want the police to know that Rona was Shafia’s wife because that would be very suspicious because then it was his wife who was dead,” Laarhuis suggested.
“Look, sir, our matter was bigger than what happened to Rona,” Yahya replied said.
Laarhuis grilled her about her testimony about a photo album of family snapshots that police found in the Shafia home in St. Leonard when they searched it on July 21, 2009.
Yahya said, in response to questions from her lawyer and from Peter Kemp, Shafia’s lawyer, that the album was found in Sahar’s bedroom sometime between July 5 and July 7. It contained photos of Sahar wearing revealing clothes, hugging her boyfriend and also snapshots of her in a bra and underwear. Shafia testified previously that he did not know Sahar had a boyfriend until he saw the photos.
Shafia, who had been sad and depressed since the deaths, became angry after seeing the photos, Yahya testified. She said the photos shocked him and led him to utter many of the foul curses that were heard on secret police recordings.
Shafia was heard on recordings introduced at the trial calling his daughters “whores” and saying: “May the devil shit on their graves.”
Yahya said she removed many photos from the album and put them into a suitcase so that Shafia wouldn’t keep looking at them.
Laarhuis pointed out that when television reporters interviewed Yahya and Shafia on July 2, they were videotaped as they leafed through what appeared to be the same distinctive photo album.
“Would it surprise you to know though, that in those media interviews you’re actually looking at the very album that’s an exhibit here in this courtroom today?” Laarhuis asked.
“Sir, if I show my home to you, I have 10 of albums, which they’re all the same,” Yahya replied.
“The album, it’s got princess right on the cover, it’s pink, you’re telling me you’ve got 10 albums in your house?” Laarhuis asked incredulously.
“Yes,” Yahya replied.
Laarhuis wondered where the other 10 albums were when police searched the house.
Yahya suggested they were in closets or other places but she could not explain what happened to them.
Laarhuis asked if the family had multiple albums containing the same photos. Yahya answered yes.
“Oh, so you had identical albums,” he said, as spectators in the courtroom snickered. “So you had many albums with the identical pictures in them?”
“Yes,” Yahya said.
“That must have been one hostile household then because Shafia would be seeing these pictures all the time, he would be ballistic all the time, 10 of them all over the place,” Laarhuis said.
Yahya conceded, after continued questioning, that there were “maybe one or two” of the pink, princess albums in the house.
Laarhuis insisted that the album seen in the television interviews is the same album that Yahya claimed was not found until days later.
“These pictures, which they were naked and made Shafia upset, I found that later on and that album which we showed to the media, that might have been another album,” Yahya testified.
She will return to the witness stand Wednesday.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)