Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to Macleans.ca and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial, which is expected to run into December.
Accused “honour killer” Mohammad Shafia returned to court this morning, nearly a week after being rushed from his prison cell to a hospital room with an undisclosed ailment. Dressed in a checkered sport coat and silver ankle chains, the 58-year-old was escorted to his reserved seat inside a bulletproof prisoner’s box. Within minutes, he was weeping.
Triggering his tears (real or imagined) was the continuation of an interrogation video featuring Shafia’s wife and fellow “honourcide” suspect, Tooba Yahya, recorded at Kingston police headquarters on July 22, 2009—the same day the couple was arrested, along with their eldest son, for the mass murder of four family members: three daughters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13) and Rona Amir Mohammad, Shafia’s other wife.
“I want you to start again and tell me the truth,” says Inspector Shahin Mehdizadeh, the Farsi-speaking RCMP officer assigned to interview Yahya. By now, he has been grilling the Afghan-born immigrant for more than four hours, and has managed to cajole one key concession: that she, her husband, and their son, Hamed, were at the Kingston Mills Locks in the early morning darkness of June 30, 2009, when the black sedan carrying the deceased foursome splashed into the Rideau Canal. Other than that, Yahya insists, she was either too “sick” or “confused” or “unconscious” to remember the details.
According to prosecutors, what initially appeared to be a tragic accident was in fact a planned and premeditated massacre aimed at restoring the family “honour,” tarnished by the Shafia girls’ so-called “treacherous” behaviour since moving to Canada with their parents in 2007. Zainab had a boyfriend and ran away to get married. Sahar had a secret boyfriend, too, and refused to wear a hijab to school. Geeti, the youngest of the victims, was the most rebellious, telling teachers, social workers and police that she wanted to be placed in foster care. (Rona, it’s alleged, was the inferior wife in Shafia’s polygamous, patriarchal household, and lost her life as a result).
“I am begging you,” Insp. Mehdizadeh says, leaning closer to Yahya. “I kiss your hand.”
“No, God forbidden,” she says. “Don’t say this.”
“Give me your hand, please. Give me your hand.”
She finally relents, allowing the officer to put his fingers around hers. “Your daughters deserve this,” he continues, his words subtitled for the jury, like a foreign film. “They deserve that at least their mother, their mother who has given them birth—you have breastfed them, you brought them up, they are the apples of your eyes. Don’t you think that they deserve that at least their mother should say the truth? These girls are in the grave now. They don’t have any chance in this world, no chance at all in this world. They have died. They are gone. Don’t you think that they deserve that at least you should tell the truth in order for them to rest in the grave peacefully? Or do you want them to be cold in their grave?”
“No,” she says, her voice barely a whisper.
Watching from the prisoners’ box, Shafia cupped his hands over his watery eyes. It’s not clear which was more upsetting: his wife being badgered about their dead children, or her skin touching another man.
The tears were long dried up by the afternoon, when the next witness took the stand: a family relative, whose name is temporarily protected by a publication ban. Speaking through a Farsi interpreter, the man revealed that in the weeks before the Sentra was found submerged in the Rideau Canal, Shafia asked him, over the telephone, to help kill his 19-year-old daughter. “He told me: ‘Zainab is a stubborn lady and doesn’t listen to me,’” said the witness, flown in from Sweden to testify. “‘She goes to the library and gets into the Internet. She doesn’t work at home. She goes outside. She has other Canadian friends and she has contact with them.’” Shafia called Zainab a “whore” and a “prostitute,” he said, because she had the nerve to wear make-up and Western clothing, and longed to enjoy the freedoms of her new country.
“She hated her father,” said the relative, who fought back his own tears more than once. “She was just fed up.”
According to his version of events, Shafia’s “murder plan” involved the relative inviting Zainab and another sister to live with him overseas. Once settled, Shafia would fly in to visit his daughters. “We take a vacation near the beach,” he said, recalling Shafia’s words over the phone. “Then, when we get close to the water, Shafia will throw Zainab into the water. Shafia’s plan was shaped in that way.”
“How did the phone call end?” asked prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis.
“I swore at him and cut the line.”
The relative didn’t take the conversation lightly. He quickly contacted Zainab’s mother, warning her of her husband’s homicidal intentions. As far as he could tell, Yahya appeared appreciative. “She told me: ‘It’s very good that you told me and that I know now,’ ” he said. “ ‘Thanks that you called me.’ ”
A few weeks later, he heard from another relative that the entire Shafia clan—husband, two wives, and seven children—were on a road trip to Niagara Falls. “When I got that information I was worried a lot,” he said. “I was seeing all those scenes like a movie, and I thought something was going to happen.”
What happened, according to the accused trio, is that the family stopped at a Kingston motel for the night on the journey home to Montreal. Once checked in, Zainab asked for the keys to the Sentra to retrieve some clothes from the trunk. The next morning, they say, the car—and its four suffocated passengers—were nowhere to be found.
Prosecutors have presented a much more gruesome account to the jury, alleging that husband, wife and brother used one of the family’s other cars, a Lexus SUV, to nudge the Nissan into the canal. Investigators found shattered pieces of the SUV’s headlight near the water’s edge, and scratch marks from both cars confirm a collision. All three suspects have pleaded not guilty.
The Crown has not alleged whether the victims were unconscious—or already dead—before the car hit the water, but it’s a mystery that Insp. Mehdizadeh returns to, again and again, during his marathon interview with Tooba Yahya.
“The whole time that the person was pushing, pushing, pushing, these girls, all of them, are sitting in the car,” he says. “What are they doing? Do they want to sing song while they are dying?”
“At that moment, I couldn’t see them,” Yahya says. She is wearing all black, like a mother in mourning should be.
“The girls, four women, are just sitting in the car waiting for someone to come and drown them in the water?” Mehdizadeh continues.
“How do I know that?” Yahya says. “In the darkness, it was as dark as the grave over there.”
A veteran Mountie who was born in Iran, Mehdizadeh was seconded to the Kingston force specifically to interview the accused couple in their mother tongue. Hour after hour, he tells his target that he already knows exactly what happened, and that he has only one question: Why? The more she sidesteps, the more evidence he discloses.
“What reason have you had to do such thing?” he asks. “A good mother! A good Muslim woman! What was your reason?”
“I didn’t have any reason and didn’t help in this,” she insists. “In fact, I didn’t help Shafia in killing them, believe me.”
“You had known this would happen.”
“No, I hadn’t known.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Believe me, I didn’t know.”
The inspector pulls out his next piece of evidence: Sahar’s cell phone records. During that drive home from Niagara Falls, the 17-year-old was sending text messages and chatting with friends. And then, at 12:25 a.m.—while the family was near Belleville, an hour’s drive from Kingston—she suddenly stops responding.
Yahya’s explanation? Her daughter had a “stomach ache” and fell asleep.
“Madam, you saw and heard the car fall in the water,” says Mehdizadeh, dressed in a blue shirt and tie. “You did nothing, Madam. Neither you did anything nor Shafia did anything nor Hamed did anything. None of you have done anything…The police would have come with their uniforms and jumped in the water to save them. Nobody has ever called the police. You just watched. You just watched the car going in the water.”
“No we didn’t.”
“I became unconscious.”
Mehdizadeh doesn’t relent. “Four people died and everybody just watched them?”
“I have become completely confused,” Yahya says, running her fingers through her hair. “I have become completely confused, believe me.” She is “very nervous.” She wants “to lie down for a while.” She is “not aware of myself, believe me.”
Mehdizadeh doesn’t believe a word. “In my view, you are a kind of mother with a heart like a rock. None of you, none of you have an atom-size discomfort that your children have died.”
“I have,” says Yahya, now 41. “Believe me, I have.”
“Madam, if you had, you would have told the truth. You would have wanted to help us. You would have wanted to respect your daughters.”
“I have,” she says. “These are my children.”
“Don’t say ‘my children.’ When you say ‘my children,’ my heart gets a little pressured. Nobody wants to see his children get drowned like this and not tell anyone.”
“Have you killed them?” he finally asks.
“Hamed has killed them?”
“Shafia has killed them?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“I don’t know what has happened. What has happened I myself don’t know…somebody else has killed them…”
“Are you afraid of Shafia?”
“Are you afraid of Shafia?” he repeats.
He asks a third time, and again, she denies. In fact, Yahya says she is no longer certain that her most incriminating statement—that the trio was at the locks when the car went over—is even accurate. “It could have been just my imagination,” she says.
Mehdizadeh tells her what is certain: that she is charged, along with her husband and son, with four counts of first-degree murder. And that won’t change, whether she reveals the motive or not. “I am sorry for you,” he says. “I am very sorry for you because you sent your poor children to their graves and you don’t have a little unease.”
“I do have concern,” she says.
“You don’t have, in fact, any concern.”
“What do you know from my heart?”
“From my heart, you have been sitting for this much time and you have just lied to me.”
“No,” she says.
Before leaving the room, Mehdizadeh makes sure to shake Yahya’s hand. She smiles, as if the worst is somehow over. “Have they released Hamed and his father?” she asks. It is nearly 1 a.m. A female officer escorts her to a cell, her first night behind bars.