At the Shafia “honour killing” trial, the verdict is in: guilty

Judge decries “cold-blooded, shameful murders”

The night before he was arrested for drowning his beautiful Afghan daughters, Mohammad Shafia told his wife and son: “I am happy and my conscience is clear. They haven’t done good and God punished them.” Today, in a courtroom packed to capacity, all three “honour killers” received their punishment: life behind bars.

The guilty verdicts—to four counts each of first-degree murder—were the climax of a sensational trial that captivated the country like few crimes have. In the end, after months of testimony and 15 hours of deliberations, a jury agreed with the prosecution’s theory: that three immigrant sisters were executed by their own father, their own mother, and their own brother because they didn’t behave like good Muslim girls should. Their “treacherous” conduct—boyfriends, tight clothes, independent thoughts—had so shamed the family name that death became the only way to restore their tarnished honour.

What happened to Zainab, Sahar and Geeti was not a foolish wrong turn by an inexperienced driver. It was mass murder, planned and pre-meditated by the people who should have loved them most.

The fourth victim, Rona Amir Mohammad, was Shafia’s first and infertile wife in a secretly polygamous clan. Her murder had nothing to do with honour. She was killed because she was no longer needed, a convenient throw-in with the rest of the “filth,” as Shafia called them.

Word of a verdict trickled out of the jury room on Sunday afternoon, just after 1 o’clock. By 1:40 p.m., the accused trio—Shafia, 59; Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42; and Hamed Shafia, 21—were being escorted into the Kingston, Ont., courtroom, their wrists and ankles cuffed, as always. At 2 p.m., the gallery silent, the jury foreman read out their decision.

Mohammad Shafia: guilty.

Tooba Yahya: guilty.

Hamed Shafia: guilty.

As soon as the first verdict was announced, Hamed leaned over and buried his face in his hands. His mother, standing to his left, rubbed his back. Shafia showed no emotion, like a man who knew what was coming.

Justice Robert Maranger, the presiding judge, asked if the killers had anything to say. “Bali,” Shafia said, the Dari word for yes. “We’re not criminals. We are not murderers. And this is unjust.”

“Your honour, this is not just,” his wife said next. “I’m not a murderer. I am a mother.”

Hamed—who didn’t testify in his own defence, and sat stone-faced during the entire trial—uttered his one sentence in English: “Sir, I did not drown my sisters anywhere.”

First-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. Taking into account time already served, Shafia will be in his early 80s by the time he’s eligible to be released. His wife will be 64. His son will be 43.

“It is difficult to conceive of a more heinous, more despicable, more honourless crime,” Justice Maranger told them. “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 his sisters and a mother. The apparent reasons behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your twisted notion of honour—a notion of honour that is founded on the domination and control of women, a notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”

As jurors left their seats for the last time, some were on the verge of tears.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of reporters and curious citizens crowded around an iron fence, watching as the convicted were led to a waiting police van. “Wrong,” Shafia said, looking at the cameras. “Wrong.” His wife and son, flanked by police, were silent.

Gerard Laarhuis, one of two Crown attorneys who worked the case, read a brief statement to reporters. “This is a good day for Canadian justice,” he said, standing beside his co-prosecutor, Laurie Lacelle. “Our democratic society 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 he spoke, a man in the crowd screamed in protest. “This is a lie,” he yelled. “This is injustice.” The man, whisked away by police, was Moosa Hadi, a self-proclaimed private investigator who worked for the Shafia family, and who testified at trial about how prosecutors had it all wrong.

Laarhuis ignored the interruption. “We all think of these four wonderful women now, who died needless deaths,” he continued. “This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles of a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy, and even visitors to Canada enjoy.”

A multi-millionaire businessman originally from Afghanistan, Shafia ran a successful import/export company in Dubai before moving his clan—himself, two wives, and seven children—to Montreal in 2007. Two summers later, on the morning of June 30, 2009, Rona and three of his daughters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13) were found at the bottom of Kingston Mills, a historic lock station on the Rideau Canal. They were floating inside a sunken Nissan Sentra, no seatbelts on, the driver’s side window wide open.

The bodies were still in the water when Shafia, Yahya and Hamed showed up at city police headquarters that afternoon to file a missing persons report. By sunset, detectives were already suspicious of their story.

They told police that their family of ten was driving home to Montreal from a Niagara Falls vacation when they veered off Highway 401 and stopped at a Kingston motel for the night. Zainab, they said, grabbed the Nissan keys to get some clothes from the trunk, and when they all woke up the next morning, the car—and the women—were gone. “I don’t know anything else,” Shafia said.

But as police learned, Hamed, 18 at the time, didn’t stay at the motel with the others. He kept going to Montreal, behind the wheel of his father’s silver Lexus SUV. And once there, he dialed 911 to report a strange, single-car fender-bender in an empty parking lot. After speaking to the officer (and asking how quickly the damage could be repaired), he climbed inside the family’s third car, a green minivan, and drove 300 km back to Kingston. When asked why he was in such a rush to get back to Montreal, Hamed said he needed to pick up his laptop.

“I think you know more than what you’ve told me here today,” said Detective-Constable Geoff Dempster.

“I have no idea,” Hamed answered.

He did. Officers combing the scene found tiny shards of plastic that were later matched to the Lexus headlight—proving that the SUV, and not just the Nissan, were at the locks that night. Even more damning, dents and scratches on the front left side of the Lexus matched similar marks on the Nissan’s back bumper, suggesting that one car pushed the other over the concrete lip of the canal.

Over the next two weeks, detectives discovered the disturbing truth about life inside the Shafia household, where women were property, men were the law, and reputation mattered more than anything else. Shafia had brought his children to the freest of countries, but expected them to adhere to his old-world honour code. In his mind, a daughter just talking to a strange boy was a sin worthy of death.

And as police discovered, the Shafia sisters had definitely “sinned.” Zainab ran away from home and married a Pakistani. Sahar had a secret boyfriend of her own—and had twice reported her parents to Quebec’s child-welfare agency. Geeti, despite her young age, was the most rebellious of all, telling anyone who listened that she wanted to be placed in foster care. She had no intention of following her father’s “traditions.”

On July 18, less than three weeks after the car was found, police invited father, mother and son back to Kingston to update them on the case—and secretly plant a wiretap in their minivan. They also took the trio on a tour of the locks, telling them (falsely) that a camera had been found nearby and detectives were sifting through the coverage. Back in the van, police were listening.

“There was no camera over there,” Yahya said. “I looked around, there wasn’t any. If, God forbid, God forbid, there was one in that little house, all three of us have come, no?”

Shafia agreed: “They’re lying.”

Over the next three days, the wiretaps captured Shafia railing against his dead daughters, describing them as “whores” who were “filthy” and “treacherous.”

“If we remain alive one night or one year, we have no tension in our hearts, [thinking that] our daughter is in the arms of this or that boy, in the arms of this or that man,” he said. “God curse their graduation! Curse of God on both of them, on their kind. God’s curse on them for a generation! May the devil shit on their graves! Is that what a daughter should be? Would [she] be such a whore?”

In one recording, Yahya told her husband that she knew Zainab “was already done,” but wished the “two others weren’t.”

“No, Tooba, they messed up. There was no other way, ” he replied. “They committed treason from beginning to end. They betrayed kindness, they betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed our tradition, they betrayed everything.”

They were arrested 36 hours later. Interrogated by police, Shafia and Hamed conceded nothing. Yahya, however, did cave, admitting that all three were at the locks when the women died—but that she fainted after hearing the splash and didn’t remember anything else.

Four months after that, Hamed gave a jailhouse statement to his father’s private investigator (the same man who heckled the prosecutors this afternoon). He admitted, for the first time, that he was at the locks when the Nissan went in—but just him, not his parents. According to his new story, he saw the women in the hotel parking lot, itching to drive to a gas station so Rona could buy a phone card. Because none of them had a license, Hamed said he agreed to follow them to make sure they returned safely.

The pumps, though, were closed, and while looking for a suitable place to turn around, both cars ended up near the locks. It was there, Hamed said, that he accidentally rear-ended the Sentra. “I hit the back but not hard, just the glass was broken, the glass of Lexus car,” he said.

Moments later, while picking up the shards, he heard a splash and sprinted over. “At that moment,” he told Hadi, “I think one of the lights was showing.” He grabbed a yellow rope from his trunk, dangled it over the water and beeped his horn several times. When none of his sisters swam to the surface, he did what any good brother would: he climbed back into the SUV and headed straight home to Montreal.

He never told his parents what happened, he said, and didn’t call police because he was afraid they would “blame me” for allowing Zainab to drive without a license. “I was scared,” Hamed said. “I decided with myself not to say that I was with them.”

At trial, that was the story the defence stuck to: Mom and Dad had no idea what happened, Hamed did, but kept it a secret.

In her closing submissions, Laurie Lacelle offered a much different explanation. “Shafia, Tooba and Hamed decided there was a diseased limb on their family tree,” she said. “And their solution was to remove the diseased limb in its entirety, and prune the tree back to the good wood.”

The jury agreed.

Click here for Maclean’s complete coverage of the trial.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.