Three members of a Montreal family have been imprisoned for life after a jury found them guilty of murdering four other family members in a crime the judge called “cold-blooded, shameful murders” based on a “twisted notion of honour.” Mohammad Shafia, 58, (inset) his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42, and their son Hamed, 21, were each found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder after a jury deliberated for 15 hours. The verdicts came after a three-month-long trial that heard from 58 witnesses.
Hamed appeared to collapse onto the front railing of the prisoner’s box as the verdicts were announced. His father, standing next to him, put his hand on his shoulder and then on top of his head. Yahya appeared to begin crying.
“You have each been convicted of the planned and deliberate murder of four members of your family,” Judge Robert Maranger, of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice said before he passed sentence. “It’s a verdict clearly supported by the evidence presented at this trial. It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime.
“There is nothing more honourless than the deliberate murder of, in the case of Mohammad Shafia, three of his daughters and his wife, in the case of Tooba Yahya, three of her daughters and a stepmother to all her children, in the case of Hamed Shafia three of sisters and a mother.
“The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your twisted notion of honor, a notion of honor that is founded upon the domination and control of women, a sick notion of honor that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”
Maranger imposed the mandatory sentences of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
All three accused protested innocence when given a chance to speak in the courtroom.
“We are not criminal,” Shafia said, in a loud and clear voice. He spoke in his native Dari and his words were interpreted. “We are not murderers. We didn’t commit the murder and this is unjust.”
Yahya also said the decision was unjust.
“I’m not a murderer and I’m a mother,” she said.
“Sir, I did not drown my sisters anywhere,” Hamed said in English.
One young female juror began to sob after the verdicts were announced.
Shafia sisters, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, were found dead June 30, 2009, inside the family’s Nissan Sentra that was discovered submerged at the bottom of the Rideau Canal at Kingston Mills, a lock station on the Rideau Canal in eastern Ontario. Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, also was in the car. She was Shafia’s first wife, whom he married in his native Afghanistan before the polygamous family moved to Canada in 2007 and settled in Montreal.
All of the victims had drowned but examinations could not pinpoint where and how they drowned.
The three-month long trial revealed that Shafia was enraged because he felt his daughters had violated strict cultural rules about sexual modesty, they dressed in revealing clothes and they were disobedient. Mohammad wanted a divorce and supported the three girls in their pursuit of western lifestyles. She and Yahya clashed frequently and Mohammad wrote, in a diary entered as evidence, that she was abused, humiliated and isolated.
Lawyer Peter Kemp, who represents Shafia, said he had not yet talked to his client about the possibility of an appeal.
“He was not convicted for what he did, he was convicted for what he said,” Kemp said in an interview outside the courtroom, in a reference to damning wiretap recordings played during the trial. On the recordings, Shafia was overheard cursing his dead daughters as “whores,” “prostitutes,” and “honourless girls.”
In one recording, Shafia said: “May the devil shit on their graves.”
Defence lawyer David Crowe, who represents Yahya, and defence lawyer Patrick McCann, who represents Hamed, both said they believe their clients will appeal.
Crown lawyer Gerard Laarhuis said police and prosecutors are pleased with the verdicts.
“We want to thank the jury for their very real contribution to the administration of justice,” he said, speaking to a crowd of reporters and spectators on the front lawn of the courthouse. “Our community should be very proud of the quality investigation done by the Kingston Police and police from various police organizations throughout Canada.”
He said this is a good day for Canadian justice, which protects the rights of all.
“It’s a very sad day because this jury found that four strong, vivacious and freedom loving women were murdered by their own family in the most troubling of circumstances.”
As Laarhuis spoke, a man who was a witness during the trial began to yell from the crowd.
“This is a lie!” shouted Moosa Hadi, a man who was hired by the defence team as a translator but who ended up conducting a secret investigation for Shafia. Hadi testified at the trial that he was certain the family was innocent and that the victims died in an accident.
Spectators began cheering the police and prosecutors and shouted: “Well done.”
“We all think of these four wonderful women now who died needless deaths,” he said. “This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy.”
Staff Sgt. Chris Scott, the Kingston Police officer who headed the investigation, thanked Laarhuis and co-prosecutor Laurie Lacelle for “an exceptional job.”
“They gave these victims a voice when they had none,” Scott said.
In a written statement, Scott said it has been a long and difficult case.
“All domestic and familial violence needs to be eradicated and this case is a tragedy beyond measure,” Scott wrote.
It is not surprising that the seven-woman, five-man jury decided the Shafias were murderers.
During the trial, jurors heard six separate accounts of murder plots or fears by the victims that they would be killed. Three times, from the mouths of three different witnesses, jurors were told that Mohammad Shafia spoke openly and angrily of wanting to kill Zainab because of her shameful behaviour. Two witnesses recounted Rona Mohammad’s fears that he would kill her.
Most damning were the recollections of two of Yahya’s relatives, her brother Fazil Javid and her paternal uncle, Latif Hyderi, who both said that Shafia spoke to them of wanting to kill his oldest daughter Zainab because she had shamed him by running away from home and marrying an unacceptable young Pakistani man, acts that made her, in her father’s eyes, a “whore” and a “prostitute.”
Javid, who lives in Sweden, said Shafia tried to recruit him, in a telephone call, to lure Zainab to Sweden, where she and her father and uncle and other family members would go on a picnic near a river or ocean.
“He told me that we will put her in water and drown her,” Javid testified.
Shafia said that he received a phone call from Javid but insisted he hung up because of longstanding enmity between the two men.
“I did not even speak to Fazil,” Shafia testified dismissively, during the trial.
Hyderi, another transplanted Afghan who lives in Montreal, said he had a telephone conversation with Shafia while Shafia was in Dubai. The call followed chaotic weeks in the Shafia household. Zainab ran away from home to a shelter for women, and then returned after her mother implored her to come back. She married a young lover her family had warned her was unacceptable. The union was annulled the day after the couple wed because of outrage that the young man’s family failed to attend a wedding celebration.
Zainab told her day-old spouse that she could not stay with him because the marriage had humiliated her family.
Shafia was in Dubai when the wedding took place and spoke to Hyderi afterwards by telephone.
“He said, ‘I’m not happy … and she didn’t do a good thing, if I was there I would have killed her,’ ” Hyderi testified in November.
In his testimony, Shafia acknowledged speaking to Hyderi but denied that he articulated his desire to see his daughter dead.
Diba Masoomi, a younger sister of Rona Mohammad, testified that her sister told her that she overheard a plot to kill Zainab and another family member. Masoomi said her sister told her of the alarming discovery in a phone call. Mohammad said she had been eavesdropping in the Shafia home when she heard the plot being discussed.
“Shafia was talking to Hamed and Tooba, (saying), ‘I will go to Afghanistan, I will prepare the passport, I will sell my property and then I will come and kill Zainab,’ ” Masoomi testified. She said Rona told her that Shafia was upset and angry.
“He told that to Tooba, ‘If the girl doesn’t return, I will kill her because she dishonoured me,’ ” Masoomi told jurors.
She said one of the other two people asked: “What about the other one?” and Shafia replied, according to her account, “I will kill the other one too.”
Mohammad told her sister that she believed she was the “other one.”
Masoomi remains grief stricken in her recollection that she reassured her sister that she was in Canada, not Afghanistan, and there was nothing to fear.
Fahima Vorgetts, a U.S.-based women’s rights activist and a former Afghan, said Mohammad had told her in, in several phone calls, that she could not divorce her husband because of his deaths threats.
“She said if she leaves, her husband will kill her,” Vorgetts testified. “She took it seriously because her husband told her he will kill her if she leaves.
Jurors also heard two pointed accounts of death threats reported by Sahar and Geeti.
Sahar told her boyfriend’s aunt that she believed her parents would kill her if they found out about her relationship with Ricardo Angel Sanchez, a Honduran immigrant who lived in Montreal.
“She told me that her parents did not know about the relationship with Ricardo and the day that her parents knew about the relationship with Ricardo she would be a dead woman,” Erma Medina testified at the end of November. She said Sahar repeated the claim several times.
Medina said the defiant young woman planned to reveal the relationship to her parents it because she would love Ricardo “until death.”
Jurors heard that Montreal police officer Const. Anne-Marie Choquette, who was not available to testify at the trial, recorded a conversation with Geeti Shafia in April 2009.
“Geeti also told police that her father often threatened that he was going to kill them,” prosecutor Laurie Lacelle said, reading into the court record a statement from the officer.
Geeti and other Shafia children spoke to police in April 2009, roughly 10 weeks before their deaths. They told officers they feared violence from their father because their sister Zainab had run away from home. Geeti told the police that a week earlier her father had pulled her hair and hit her in the face. She said her brother Hamed punched her in the eye with his fist. The assaults came after the children returned home at 9 p.m., after their curfew, from a trip to a shopping mall.
Once the Shafias complete their prison sentences, they are likely to be deported to Afghanistan, according to a lawyer and former Canadian immigration officer.
Raj Sharma, who practices in a large Calgary, Alta., law firm that specializes in immigration cases, said the Canadian government temporarily suspends removals to some countries where there are natural disasters or war that put people at risk, but those provisions don’t apply to the Shafias.
“They would be removed to Afghanistan,” Sharma said, in a telephone interview from Calgary. “The temporary suspension of removals doesn’t help them.”
He pointed to a section of the Immigration Act that provides that anyone who is convicted of a serious crime is not subject to the temporary suspensions.
“We deport people to Sudan and Somalia and other hellholes including Haiti and we would deport to Afghanistan as well,” said Sharma, who also is an advocate of tough punishment for honour crimes.
His uncle was murdered 21 years ago in a shocking triple slaying that appears to have been the biggest honour killing on record in Canada, until now.
“This honour killing thing is kind of sensitive for me,” Sharma said. “These sort of male oriented, patriarchal cultures are especially susceptible, no matter how much they try to deny it or diminish it.”
In 1991, Daljit Singh Dulay killed his sister, Kulwinder Dulay, 20, her husband Gurdawr Singh Dulay, 28, and Mukesh Kumar Sharma, 28, on a street in downtown Calgary, Alta. outside a video store where the couple worked. Daljit Dulay was angry that his sister had eloped and secretly wed, without the permission of her strict Sikh family. He was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.
Sharma turned and ran after Dulay opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle but Sharma was shot in the back. In 2007, Dulay was denied an opportunity to seek early parole from prison, although psychiatric reports concluded that he had renounced the Indian culture of honour killings.
Raj Sharma said he was in Grade 8 at the time of the killings.
“I was in court watching this murder trial for two or three weeks and probably that’s why I became a lawyer,” he said. Dulay acknowledged that because he was the son, “it fell to [him] to cleanse the family honour,” Sharma said.
With the conviction of the Shafias, the tally of confirmed victims of honour crimes in Canada since 2005 is now 11. Among this total, seven of the victims are young women.
• In 2006 in Ottawa, Ont., Khatera Sadiqi, 20, and her fiance, Feroz Mangal, were shot to death by Sadiqi’s brother, who believed she had shamed the Pakistani family by getting engaged without her father’s consent. Hasibullah Sadiqi, 23, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.
• In June 2007 in Scarborough, Ont., Anitha Selvanayagam, 16, and her boyfriend were walking together when they were run over and seriously injured by a van driven by her father. Prosecutors called it an “attempted honour killing” by Sri Lankan immigrant Selvanayagam Selladurai who was angry that his daughter had dated a boy of a lower caste. He pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated assault. Selladurai also ran down his son in law in the attack.
• In December 2007 in Mississauga, Ont., Aqsa Parvez was strangled to death by her father, Muhammad Parvez, and brother Waqas Parvez, 26, in the family home. The men pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 years. Aqsa rebelled against strict cultural and religious rules imposed by her Pakistan-born Muslim father.
• In January 2009, Amandeep Kaur Dhillon, 22, was stabbed to death by her father-in-law, 47-year-old Kamikar Singh Dhillon, who believed she would disgrace his family by divorcing his son. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Over the past two years, there have been at least four additional suspected honour crimes, including a June 2010 incident in Montreal in which a 38-year-old woman was charged with attempted murder after her 19-year-old daughter was stabbed. Montreal Police said they were treating it as a “crime of honour.”
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)