“My children did a lot of cruelty to me”

On the witness stand, accused “honour killer” Mohammad Shafia says he was the model father
Mohammad Shafia leaves the holding cell at the Frontenac county courthouse in Kingston, Ontario on Thursday Dec. 8, 2011. A man accused of killing his three daughters over family honour portrayed himself Thursday as a loving, benevolent and lenient father, even though his children were cruel to him. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial, which is expected to run into January.

Standing in the witness box, hand on the Koran, Mohammad Shafia promised to “state the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Allah.” And for a few minutes, at least, the accused “honour killer” kept his oath. He told the jury he was born in Kabul, Afghanistan (true), that his family was very rich (true), and that he had two wives and seven children (until the night one of those wives and three of those children ended up at the bottom of the Rideau Canal).

Then his testimony turned to the wiretaps.

The jury has already listened to the revolting rants, Shafia’s voice cursing his “treacherous” daughters just days after their funerals. “Even if they come back to life a hundred times, if I have a cleaver in my hand, I will cut [her] in pieces,” he said. “May the devil sh– on their graves!”

Peter Kemp, Shafia’s lawyer, asked his client for some context. “What did you mean by that?”

“To me, it means the devil would go out and check with them in their graves,” Shafia explained. “If they have done a good thing, it would be good. If they did bad, it will be up to God what to do.”

The truth, according to Mohammad Shafia: “sh–” can mean “check,” and everyone—except him—is full of it.

Like all accused criminals, the 58-year-old has every right to remain silent while prosecutors try to prove their case. But the immigrant businessman (charged with quadruple murder, along with his second wife and eldest son) chose to testify in his own defence, adding yet another layer of drama to an already sensational trial. The result was typical Shafia: part tearful, part feisty, all denial.

Truth be told, he sounded a lot like a man who is well aware of the evidence against him, and has crafted a convenient story to explain away each damning clue.

Three of Shafia’s beautiful daughters—Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13—were discovered at the bottom of the Kingston Mills Locks on June 30, 2009, floating beside their “stepmother,” Rona Amir Mohammad, their dad’s first wife in the polygamous Muslim clan. The Crown claims that what appeared to be a freak car accident was in fact a mass “honour kill” meant to restore the family’s reputation, tarnished by the girls’ supposedly shameful behaviour since moving to Canada in 2007. Zainab had run away from home and married against her parents’ wishes. Sahar had a secret boyfriend and, like Geeti, was desperate to move out. And Rona, infertile and ostracized, had demanded a divorce.

But Shafia, on the stand all day, painted himself as the model father and husband: patient, liberal, quick with advice, and even quicker with hundred-dollar bills. All the girls, he said, called him “Daddy,” and none had a reason to fear him. Despite what so many others have said while sitting in the same chair, Shafia insisted that he never told his daughters how to dress, was not violent or threatening, and had absolutely nothing to do with their late-night plunge into the Kingston Mills Locks. “Whatever my children wanted—for their studies, for their entertainment—I would buy it for them,” he said. “There were no restrictions.”

All he asked for in return was one thing: no boyfriends. Marriage was fine. A proper, traditional engagement was fine, even to a non-Muslim. But no boyfriends.

And that, Shafia claims, is what triggered all those nasty words—“whore,” “filthy,” “treason”—caught on the wiretaps. He was still angry, even after her death, that Zainab had a boyfriend. And he was even more furious at some photos he found of Sahar (after the “accident,” of course) that showed her cuddling with her secret boyfriend. “I was not happy seeing this picture,” he admitted. “I did not think of my children this way. They could have gotten married; I wasn’t against that. But I didn’t expect this. My children did a lot of cruelty to me.”

Yet in the same breath, Shafia said he forgave Zainab for all that boyfriend stuff, recalling—in tears—the day she came to his bedroom and apologized. “She said: ‘Daddy, please forgive me,’ ” he said. “I said: ‘Don’t worry, I forgive you.’ I gave her $100 and kissed her face.” Two weeks later, she was dead.

“Let’s assume there was no accident, and you found the pictures of Sahar in July,” Kemp asked. “What would you have done?”

“I would have told her it was wrong, it was incorrect,” Shafia said. “I would have asked Sahar: ‘What are you doing, my child? Do you love him?’ I would have told her it was not correct, in our eyes, that he wasn’t Muslim, but if she wanted to marry him it would have been her decision. At least I would have discharged my own responsibilities. That would have been her life. That would have been up to my daughter.”

The “truth” kept coming.

Prosecutors allege that the accused trio—Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya, and their son Hamed—used a family “vacation” as a ruse to lure the women to their death. On June 20, 2009, someone using Hamed’s laptop typed “where to commit a murder” into Google, and later that same day Hamed and his cell phone were in Grand-Remous, Que., 270 km north of their Montreal neighbourhood. Just two days after that, the entire family of 10 was on their way to the same town.

Yet the day after they arrived, the caravan made a hard left turn toward Ottawa on its way to Niagara Falls. Why the scenic detour—to the very same place that Hamed visited the day his laptop was churning out hits for murder scenes? Shafia explained that the original plan was to drive to Vancouver, but after suddenly realizing it was on the other side of the country, they decided to turn around and head to the Falls instead.

They arrived on June 24. On June 27, while everyone was still vacationing, Hamed’s cellphone was back in the Kingston area. Reconnaissance mission at the locks? No, Shafia says. He was driving back to Montreal for some unexpected business, got halfway there, then turned around.

By the way, he said, he was also looking to buy some waterfront property as an “investment” and some shipping containers for his new import/business. Which explains those other Google searches: “moutains on water,” “moutains with lake,” and “Huge boxes in Montreal.”

“Did you have anything whatsoever to do with how that car got in the water?” Kemp asked, in his final question.

“I didn’t know at all until July 18, when [police] showed us the area, where the place was,” Shafia answered.

It was hardly the emphatic response. Especially since he told the jury, just two hours earlier, that he had been to the locks three separate times before July 18.

Laurie Lacelle, the female in the prosecutorial duo, conducted the cross-examination. By design or not, Shafia looked clearly uncomfortable. He kept calling her “Respected lady.”

Lacelle suggested that Rona was a mere “servant,” that the girls weren’t allowed to even go outside without his approval, and that Zainab in particular was damaging his “reputation” among fellow Afghans. She also spent a lot of time asking Shafia about April 17, 2009, the day Zainab ran away, and the day police and a child welfare worker were dispatched to the house. Geeti told the officers her father was abusive; Sahar, who had already attempted suicide once before, said she wanted to live somewhere that wasn’t so violent.

“I have never been violent toward my children, toward my family,” Shafia said, his words translated from Farsi to English. “Every time I talk to my children, I would call them my sweetheart and my buddy.”

“Were you told that Geeti and Sahar wanted to leave the house?” Lacelle asked.

“They never told me that they want to leave the house.”

“Were you told that Geeti and Sahar were afraid of you?”

“I don’t know the reason of their fear,” he said. “They might have been ashamed if they had done something wrong, but I don’t have any reason why they should be afraid of me.”

“It had to have been clear by the end of the night that the children were making allegations against you,” Lacelle said.

“Police at that time didn’t tell me if I was violent to the children. The discussion was just about Zainab, who left the house. The problem was Zainab. The other family members did not have any problem. She left the house. My other children didn’t have any problem.”

Lacelle reminded Shafia that his daughter was 19 years old, not twelve. “She could have had her own life if she wanted it.”

“She was not working, so she would not have a good life,” he said. “I was not happy that my daughter would go somewhere on welfare. My wish was that she would continue her education, find a job somewhere.”

After his arrest, Shafia told the interrogating officer all about his children. They lied. Geeti was a shoplifter. Zainab was always stealing the car keys. “You wanted the inspector to know that your children were liars and thieves and troublemakers,” Lacelle said.

“Yes, I was upset, respected lady,” Shafia conceded.

“You called them ‘filthy’ and ‘rotten,’” she said, shifting back to the wiretaps.

“Indeed, what you are saying, respected lady, I accept that. I’m telling you the truth, these bad things—lying, stealing—are not acceptable to me. I am a father and that is my responsibility.”

“So you thought Zainab and Sahar were filthy and rotten because they had boyfriends, and that Geeti was filthy and rotten because she stole?”

“That is completely true,” Shafia said. “I said those things. I used to advise them in the best way. I didn’t want to show them the wrong path.”

“You called them filthy and rotten on the day of visiting the locks in Kingston, right?” she asked, alluding to the July 18 visit with police.

“Yes,” Shafia said. “Respected lady, they didn’t kill themselves alone. They killed us too. Three of my children are living in someone else’s house, and three of us are in prisons. It was not just four people killed. It was ten people killed.”


“Yes,” Shafia said. “They were doing bad things. If they had chosen a proper way to marry, I would have been happy. But I saw those pictures and I was upset. My heart was bleeding.”

On the day Shafia was arrested, he rode to the Kingston police station in the same car with his son, both in the back seat. “We may not be able to see [each other] again,” Hamed said.

“I commend you to God, my son,” his dad answered.

“You never once spoke that way about your dead daughters, did you?” Lacelle asked. “You said: ‘May the devil sh– on their graves.”

“I said to Hamed: ‘We are innocent, and God will help us.’”

“And your daughters weren’t innocent, were they?”

Shafia rambled on, yet again, about Zainab and Sahar and how they would have destroyed their lives with those boyfriends.

He will be back on the stand Friday morning.