Mohammad Shafia’s house rules

At the Shafias’, court hears, men were the law, women property and teen behaviour worthy of execution
Tooba Mohammad Yahya and husband Mohammad Shafia and their son Hamed Mohammed Shafia are escorted by police officers into the Frontenac County Court courthouse on the first day of trial in Kingston, Ontario on Thursday, October 20, 2011. They are charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of three teenage Shafia sisters and Rona Amir Mohammad, 50, who were found dead inside a submerged car. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
House rules
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

On paper, Mohammad Shafia was the ideal immigrant, a wealthy, self-made businessman eager to inject his dollars into the Canadian economy. An Afghan who made his fortune in Dubai real estate, Shafia wasted little time setting up shop in his adopted country. In 2008, a year after arriving in Montreal, he purchased a $2-million strip mall in Laval—with a cash down payment of $1.6 million. He launched a company that imported and distributed clothing, household goods and construction material. And he chose the posh suburb of Brossard to build a sprawling mansion with plenty of room for all 10 members of his polygamous clan: himself, two wives and seven children.

The new house was still under construction on June 30, 2009, when three of the Shafia girls—Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13—were discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, floating inside a sunken black Nissan that also contained the lifeless body of their “stepmother,” Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad. The four passengers appeared, at first glance, to be the victims of a late-night joyride gone horribly wrong. Within weeks, however, detectives in Kingston, Ont., offered a far more chilling version of events, laying first-degree-murder charges against a trio of suspects: Mohammad Shafia, the dead girls’ father; Tooba Yahya, their mother; and Hamed Shafia, their brother.

Today, more than two years later, the Shafia patriarch sleeps in a tiny cell with his eldest son. His wife—the one that’s still breathing—is locked in a separate prison. His mansion-to-be has been sold, his other surviving children (two girls and a boy) are under the watchful eye of social services, and his bank accounts have no doubt been decimated by mounting legal fees and lost profits. At the Kingston courthouse, where their murder trial is now underway, the accused threesome sits, ankles shackled, behind a thick plate of bulletproof glass. Outside, a police paddy wagon waits to escort them back to jail for the night.

For most people (especially Lexus drivers who can afford to pay cash for shopping malls), such indignities would be unbearable. But if prosecutors are correct, Mohammad Shafia is a man at peace. Despite everything he has lost—his three beautiful daughters, his first wife, freedom, hot suppers—he has supposedly salvaged the one thing that truly matters: his honour. As the 58-year-old declared during one intercepted conversation: “They messed up. There was no other way.”

No other way, prosecutors say, but to pile his “treacherous” daughters and infertile first wife into a car and, under the cover of midnight darkness, push it into the shallow waters of the Kingston Mills Locks.

The case raises troubling questions about a child protection system that has zero tolerance on bullying and sexual assualt but seems adrift when larger cultural issues are at play. The evidence put to the jury so far paints a damning portrait of life inside the Shafia world, where men were the law, women were property and typical teenage behaviour was a sin worthy of execution. According to the Crown, Shafia subscribed to an ancient unwritten (and very un-Canadian) honour code in which a family’s reputation hinges on the sexual purity of its females. Dad allegedly grew so enraged with his daughters’ Westernized disobedience—the revealing outfits, the cellphone photos of their boyfriends, the repeated visits from police and child welfare authorities—that mass murder became the only way to reverse the family’s “shame.”

Hamed, prosecutors say, was the obedient, curly-haired son who staked out potential crime scenes and tried, ever so clumsily, to cover up their tracks. (Days before his sisters drowned, someone using his laptop typed “where to commit a murder” into Google.) Tooba, wife number two, was an equally willing accomplice who, if the allegations are true, was with her men when the car-turned-coffin splashed into the locks, carrying three of the children that she once carried.

Rona Amir was 53 years old when divers pulled her corpse from the water. Three weeks later, investigators found her diary. In the very first entry, written in Dari, Rona chronicled how she met the man who would allegedly end her life. “A distant relative on my father’s side had come to my brother’s wedding reception and saw me sitting there, quiet and subdued,” she wrote. “She liked me and asked for my hand in marriage for her son.”

Following tradition, Rona’s family visited Mohammad Shafia’s house so he “could have a good look at me.” Later, her brother asked if she “accepted” the engagement. “I said, ‘Give me away in marriage if he is a good man,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘Don’t if he is not.’ ”

They were married in February 1972 in Kabul. Rona wore a light blue dress; Shafia’s suit was purple. “After getting married,” she wrote, “my lot in life began a downward spiral.”

As prosecutor Laurie Lacelle explained to the jury, Rona was unable to conceive. Eventually, after years of failed fertility treatments, she told her husband: “Go and take another wife, what can I do?” He did. Shafia’s second bride, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, was 17 years his junior—and pregnant within months.

Zainab came first. Hamed, a son, was born a year later, followed by Sahar, another girl. “As is sometimes done in Afghanistan when one wife can’t conceive, 40 days after Sahar was born she was given to Rona by Tooba to raise as her own daughter,” Lacelle explained. “Rona loved Sahar dearly.”

Sahar was still a baby in August 1992, when the family fled the Afghan civil war for Pakistan. By the time they reached Dubai in 1996, Tooba had given birth to three more children, including another daughter, Geeti. But with each birth, the wives’ relationship grew increasingly strained. Tooba, Rona wrote, was so manipulative that she managed to convince their husband to sleep only with her. And whatever the dispute—from squabbles over chores to spats over gold jewellery—Shafia always sided with Tooba. “Whatever I did, if I sat down, if I got up, if I ate anything, there was blame and censure attached to it,” Rona wrote. “In short, he had made life a torture for me.”

The family moved to Canada in the summer of 2007, reportedly through Quebec’s Immigrant Investor Program, which provides visas to affluent foreigners in exchange for, among other things, a hefty cheque made out to the province. Rona, though, was not on the plane. Because polygamy is illegal in Canada, she was sent to live with relatives in Germany while the others settled into a rental apartment in Montreal. When she did rejoin them the following fall, it was on a visitor’s visa. (Shafia told immigration authorities that Rona was his cousin. They believed him.)

Rona returned to a toxic household. Zainab and Sahar longed to live like Canadian teenagers, to wear lipstick and tank tops instead of hijabs, but their parents (and their brother, Hamed) were obsessed with maintaining “tradition.” Sahar complained so often about the beatings she endured at home that school officials called the province’s youth protection services. In one diary entry, Rona recalled how her surrogate daughter swallowed a bottle of pills. “She can go to hell,” Tooba allegedly said. “Let her kill herself.”

Like her little sister, Zainab had a boyfriend. When her parents found out, via Hamed, she was banned from leaving the house. For a year, Zainab didn’t even go to school. Finally—at 19—she worked up the courage to run away.

When Hamed dialled 911 to report her missing, the officer was far more alarmed by what Zainab’s sisters were saying. Geeti, 13, revealed that her dad yanked her hair and punched her in the face when she was late coming home from a mall. Sahar, 17, talked about the physical abuse she and Zainab endured—and how she was so petrified of her parents that she wore a hijab to school, then changed outfits as soon as she arrived.

Zainab, it turned out, had taken refuge at a women’s shelter, but her mother eventually convinced her to come home. She walked through the front door on May 1, 2009, the same day her dad flew to Dubai for one of his many business trips. Two of Shafia’s relatives are expected to testify that he told them he was going to kill Zainab when he returned.

Hamed, now 21, joined his father overseas on June 1, carrying his Toshiba laptop on the plane. Two days later, the Google searches began.

“Can a prisoner have control over his real estate?”

“Montreal Jail”

“facts documentaries on murders”

Back in Canada, school officials filed yet another complaint with youth services after Sahar told a teacher she was terrified that her father would discover her boyfriend. Geeti was acting even more rebellious, wearing “inappropriate” clothing to class and telling anyone who would listen that she wanted out of her house. (Among the prosecution’s exhibits is a handwritten note from Geeti to her big sister Sahar, scattered with hearts and red ink. “i promise before dying i’ll make all ur wishes come true one by one,” she wrote.)

Hamed and his father flew back to Canada on June 13, a Saturday. Over the next week, Hamed would continue his online research (“mountains on water,” “Metal boxes for sale”) and cancel Zainab’s cellphone plan. On June 22, Shafia paid $5,000 for a used car: the doomed Nissan Sentra. The very next day, all 10 family members—split between the Sentra and a silver Lexus SUV—set off for a holiday in Niagara Falls, nearly 700 km away.

It appeared to be a standard summer vacation, at least judging by the cellphone photos recovered by police: Sahar and Zainab in front of a bathroom mirror, Sahar and Rona in a hotel room, Sahar wearing a brown and green bikini. In one self-portrait, taken just three days before she died, Zainab photographed herself wearing only a bra and underwear.

The Shafias checked out on June 29 and piled into their cars for the late-night journey home. At 1:16 a.m., after passing through Toronto and Belleville, Sahar received a text message. The source was a cellphone tower in Odessa—16 km from Kingston Mills, a Parks Canada lock station at the Rideau Canal’s southernmost tip.

Twenty minutes later, she received another text, this one bouncing off a tower just 1,300 m from the locks. It was the last message Sahar ever received.

The accused killers walked into Kingston Police headquarters early the next afternoon. Hamed, translating for his parents, told the front-desk clerk they wanted to file a missing persons report. (The kids who didn’t drown the night before were waiting at a nearby Tim Hortons.) By then, police had already been alerted to a sunken sedan in the locks.

The Shafias initially told detectives that after checking into a Kingston motel for the night, Zainab asked for the car keys so she could retrieve some clothes. The next morning, they said, the black Sentra was missing—along with Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona. But officers on the scene were understandably skeptical. Although it was obvious where the car went in the water, the question was how it got there. In order to reach the ledge, the Sentra had to jump a high curb and make a sharp left around a rock outcropping and then a hard right around a narrow wall. A tragic accident this was not.

A closer inspection of the car revealed more incriminating clues. The ignition was turned off. The front seats were reclined nearly all the way back. And, despite the fact that none of the women was wearing a seatbelt—and the driver’s-side window was rolled all the way down—not one tried to swim to safety. (An autopsy confirmed drowning as the cause of death, but it’s not certain where they actually drowned. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the medical examiner found fresh bruising on three of the victims’ heads.)

The car’s exterior also sustained damage inconsistent with a speedy plunge into the water, including dents and scratches on the back bumper. Even stranger, police at the locks found shattered pieces of a headlight that came not from the Nissan but from the Lexus. Const. Chris Prent, an accident reconstruction expert with the Ontario Provincial Police, examined the shards of plastic and the dents on both vehicles (the back of the Nissan and the front of the Lexus). “It is my opinion that the Lexus was used to push the Nissan over the ledge into the water,” he told the jury.

Eighteen days after the women died, police invited the Shafias back to Kingston to retrieve some belongings. While inside the station, officers secretly installed a listening device in their Pontiac minivan and then told them, in a classic ruse, that a building near the locks contained a video camera that detectives were now poring over. When their suspects climbed back in the van, police were listening.

“If, God forbid, God forbid, there was one in that little room, all three of us would have been recorded,” Tooba said.

“No,” Shafia answered. “Had there been one there, they would have checked it first thing and they would have held you to account that night.”

Over the next four days—until their arrests on July 22, 2009—Shafia ranted about his “shameless” and “blasted” daughters being “in the arms” of boyfriends. “We have no tension in our hearts,” he said. “May the devil s–t on their graves!”

“They violated us immensely,” he declared in another intercept. “They betrayed humankind, they betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed our tradition, they betrayed everything.”

On the same day investigators executed a search warrant on the family home, Shafia had one of his last conversations as a free man. “Even if they hoist me up into the gallows,” he told his son, “nothing is more dear to me than my honour. Let’s leave our destiny to God and may God never make me, you or your mother honourless.”

Last week, 27 months after those words were recorded, a jury of five men and seven women visited the Kingston Mills Locks to get an up-close view of the alleged crime scene. Parked nearby, in a silver SUV with tinted windows, were father and son, flanked by armed guards. Tooba chose not to join them on the field trip, the memory of her daughters—or what she allegedly did the last time she was there—too much for a mother to bear.