A mother and son face the truth

Tooba Yahya banks on her son’s shaky alibi that he was there when his sisters ’accidentally’ died
This court release photo show the Tooba Yahya (wedding gown) and Mohammad Shafia at their wedding at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in 1988, as his first wife Rona Amir Mohammad (right), is shown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
A mother and son face the truth

The jury has heard so many conflicting narratives, such wildly different versions of the “truth,” that the evidence sometimes resembles a real-life game of Clue. Shafia at the canal with the Lexus. Zainab at the motel with the car keys. Tooba in the Nissan with the four corpses-to-be (and a nasty fever that caused her to conveniently faint as soon as she heard the splash).

But this week—after three months in court, dozens of witnesses, and one epic round of cross-examination—two things became very apparent: the prosecution’s complete theory of the crime, as laid out in chilling detail by Crown attorney Gerard Laarhuis; and the opposing storyline that defence lawyers seem to have settled on.

Hamed—and only Hamed—at the water’s edge with a rope. (To rescue the women, of course, not to kill them.)

When deliberations do begin, there’d better be lots of chart paper in the jury room.

The basic facts are not in dispute. On the morning of June 30, 2009, three of the Shafia sisters (Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13) were found in a watery grave, floating inside a sunken Nissan Sentra with their supposed “auntie,” Rona Amir Mohammad, who was actually their dad’s other wife in a secretly polygamous—and very wealthy—Afghan clan. The family of 10, recent immigrants to Canada, were on their way home to Montreal after a Niagara Falls vacation when the black sedan plunged into the Kingston Mills locks. Investigators who combed the scene also found shattered bits of headlight from the family’s other car, a silver Lexus SUV.

Beyond that, things get murky.

According to police, the women in the water were victims of a mass execution orchestrated by their closest relatives: Mohammad Shafia, father and husband, Tooba Yahya, mother and fellow wife, and Hamed Shafia, brother and surrogate son. Their alleged motive was to restore the family’s “honour,” stained by the girls’ sexy outfits, secret boyfriends, and otherwise typical teenage behaviour. Simply put (although nothing about this case is simple), the sisters didn’t behave like good Muslim daughters should, and their punishment was death. (Rona, it’s alleged, was a convenient throw-in, the barren first wife and borderline servant.)

The jurors are well aware of each mysterious detail. Three of the victims (except Sahar) had bruises on their heads. Zainab’s sweater was on backwards. None of them were wearing seat belts. The driver’s side window was wide open, yet no one tried to escape. The car was in first gear. Ignition off. Front seats reclined all the way.

But not until this week, with mom still on the stand, did the Crown reveal its full version of the puzzle. “You were there,” Laarhuis told Yahya. “And you saw it.”

Speaking like prosecutors do, Laarhuis “suggested” to Yahya that she knew full well Rona and the girls would not make it back to Montreal alive. The plan, concocted with husband and son, was to pass through Kingston in the wee hours of the morning, and for Yahya to wait with the doomed—seats reclined, everyone asleep—while her accomplices went “looking” for a motel. “They would have no reason to expect anything bad would happen, right?” Laarhuis asked. “They were with their mother, right?”

Shafia and Hamed dropped the other three children at the motel, he continued, and rejoined Yahya at the locks parking lot. “That was the end,” he said. “You knew that you had to get out of that Nissan, and you ran to the Lexus.” One by one, the victims were drowned (specific location unknown), stuffed back inside the Nissan, and driven to the concrete lip of the canal.

“Somebody reached through the open window and put the car from neutral into gear one, thinking on its own power the Nissan would go into the water,” Laarhuis went on. “What none of you expected—what was not part of the plan—was that the Nissan would get hung up.”

“No, never,” Yahya replied.

“When the Nissan got hung up, there was an emergency: you had bodies inside the car hung up on the edge of the canal,” Laarhuis said. “While figuring out what to do, one of you reached into the open window and turned off the ignition to kill the lights and kill the engine, to try not to draw attention to this vehicle that was hung up on the locks.” Frantic, one of the accused steered the Lexus to the Nissan and rammed the dead the rest of the way.

“No sir,” Yahya insisted, tears flowing. “We are not murderers. We were a very sincere and collected family. Don’t ever tell me that I killed my children. Never!”

A few hours later, Hamed was all the way back in Montreal, phoning 911 to report a single-car fender-bender in an empty parking lot. He was in such a rush to stage that accident, Laarhuis said, that he dropped his parents at the motel and sped away with his mother’s purse, wallet and the family’s suitcases still in the trunk.

Yahya told Laarhuis he was “imagining” things.

But during her six days on the stand—in between the sobs and the finger wagging and the endless lessons on Afghan culture—Yahya did agree with one thing the prosecutor said: Hamed was there when the car went in. Not mom and dad. Just Hamed.

Like all things Shafia, some explanation is required. A few months after the arrests, a Queen’s University engineering student named Moosa Hadi phoned up one of the defence lawyers and offered his services as a Dari translator. A fellow Afghan, Hadi was granted blanket access to all the disclosure material—wiretaps, forensic reports, the videotaped interrogations—and before long, Shafia hired him as a private eye, paying Hadi $4,500 to “discover the truth.” By November 2009, four months after the women died, his “investigation” took him straight to Hamed.

In a tape-recorded jailhouse interview, later submitted to police, Hamed admitted the “truth.” He said the whole family did make it to the motel, and that he saw Zainab and the others inside the Nissan, itching to drive to a nearby gas station to buy some phone cards. Hamed advised against it, but agreed to follow them in the Lexus just to make sure they made it back safely. “They are scared at night,” he said.

The pumps were closed, he continued, and while looking for a good place to turn around, they somehow ended up near the locks. That’s when he accidentally rear-ended the Nissan, breaking the headlight. “I was upset, I called them to come back,” Hamed explained. “They said: ‘Okay, we’ll make a turn.’ ”

While picking up the broken pieces, Hamed said he heard a splash and sprinted toward the water. Then he did what any good brother would: he beeped his horn a couple of times, dangled a rope in the water like a fisherman hoping for a bite, and left for Montreal. “I was scared,” he said. Scared of his father’s reaction. Scared that the cops would blame him for allowing Zainab to drive without a licence. “I decided with myself not to say that I was with them,” he continued. “I didn’t know what to say to my mom and dad.”

When asked about her son’s supposedly gigantic secret, Yahya told Laarhuis that she only heard about it after their case reached court. “He sees you grieving and crying and doesn’t tell you anything about it?” he asked.

“I don’t know why he didn’t say anything,” she answered.

“When you’re at the funeral, he doesn’t say anything?”


“When they take the other kids out of your house, he doesn’t say anything?”


“When they arrested you, he doesn’t say anything?”


“When you’re in jail for four months, he doesn’t say anything?”


“So are you defending Hamed now for not having told you?”

“No,” she said. “He should have told us. He should have come and told us everything clearly.”

One thing is clear. Unlike mom and dad, Hamed has decided not to testify, shielding his shaky alibi from cross-examination and saving it for closing arguments. Will it be enough to sway just one member of the jury? Or, like the story he clings to, will there be no rescue?