The defence calls: Mohammad Shafia

The accused “honour killer” is expected to testify on his own behalf. What more can Shafia possibly say?
A car (pictured) found at the bottom of an eastern Ontario canal with the bodies of three sisters and their father’s first wife suspended in the water inside seemed to trace a very deliberate path, a murder trial heard Friday Oct. 21, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO- Shafia Trial Evidence Photo
Colin Perkel/Canadian Press

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 December.

Mohammad Shafia was arrested three weeks after the car was found. By then, police in Kingston, Ont., were convinced that he, his wife, and their eldest son were responsible for the four dead bodies floating inside. “You are a wise man,” said Shahin Mehdizadeh, the Farsi-speaking cop sent to interrogate him. “I will prove to you that you had planned this.”

Piece by piece, the inspector laid out his evidence, each clue pointing to the same damning conclusion: a quadruple “honour kill” staged to look like a freak car accident. The passengers in that doomed Nissan Sentra—three of Shafia’s daughters, and his first wife in the polygamous household—didn’t make a late-night wrong turn into the Rideau Canal, Mehdizadeh told him. They were pushed in, rammed from behind by the family’s other car, a Lexus SUV.

Slouched in his chair, fresh off his first night in jail, Shafia conceded nothing. The more proof the cop produced—shattered pieces of headlight at the water’s edge, dents and scratches on the Nissan’s rear bumper, his own incriminating words caught on tape—the more he denied.

“We were not there.”

“Swear to God.”

“I don’t lie.”

“They were pure and sinless kids.”

At one point, the questions turned to Rona Amir Mohammad, Shafia’s supposed cousin and the eldest of the four drowning victims. “Have you ever been married with her?” Mehdizadeh asked.

“No,” Shafia answered. Not even an old wedding photo, cake and all, was enough to pry out the truth. “It was her birthday,” he said, looking at the picture. “This is not marriage.”

Mehdizadeh didn’t get a confession that day. Not even close. But before leaving the room, he did issue a warning that, nearly 2½ years later, sounds very prescient: at trial, he told Shafia, a blanket denial won’t be enough. “You can’t go to the court and just say: ‘No,’ ” he said. “In this country, it’s not like that.”

On Thursday, Mohammad Shafia is expected to finally provide some sort of explanation—from the witness box. Although accused criminals have the right to remain silent, reports say the millionaire Afghan businessman has decided to testify on his own behalf, and has been prepping behind bars with his lawyer, Peter Kemp. As courtroom dramatics go, it doesn’t get much bigger. But for Shafia, it is the riskiest of legal maneuvers, exposing him to a cross-examination that is sure to be ruthless and thorough. For prosecutors, the hardest part will be figuring out where to begin.

Mr. Shafia, when you urged the devil “to sh–” on your daughters’ graves, what exactly did you mean by that?

Your wife (the one who isn’t in the ground) has admitted that you, her, and your son were at the locks when the Nissan plunged into the water. Is she mistaken?

You said, during one conversation captured by a police wiretap, that “even if they come back to life a hundred times” you would “cut” them again. Did you drown your children?

All three suspects—Shafia, 58; Tooba Yahya, 41; and Hamed Shafia, 20—have pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder. Their initial story (which has changed here and there, depending on which suspect is doing the talking) was that the family of 10 was driving home to Montreal after a Niagara Falls vacation when they stopped at a Kingston motel for the night. The next morning, Rona and the girls—Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13—were discovered at the locks.

By day’s end, detectives were suspicious of mom, dad and brother. Within 72 hours, the investigation was officially deemed a homicide.

Over the past six weeks, witness after witness has offered a chilling glimpse of the violence and abuse that defined life as a Shafia woman. Zainab, a virtual prisoner, was so desperate to escape that she fled to a shelter and married against her parents’ wishes. Sahar, her little sister, tried to commit suicide, while Geeti, just 13, told anyone who would listen—teachers, social workers and police—that she wanted to be placed in foster care. Rona, the infertile and ostracized first wife, told numerous relatives that Shafia beat her and threatened death if she ever tried to leave.

One witness told the jury that Shafia asked him, point blank, to help kill Zainab because she was a “whore” and a “prostitute.”

But if Shafia does take the stand and swear on the Koran, it will be his own words that are most scrutinized. Police questioned him twice within 24 hours of his car being fished from the canal, and in both interviews he suggested that Zainab and her shoddy driving skills were to blame for the “accident.” He said the girls had stolen the car keys on previous occasions, and that Zainab was anxious to get behind the wheel. The day she died, in fact, Shafia said she reversed the Nissan into the Lexus while practicing in the parking lot of their Niagara Falls hotel. “I went and got the key from Zainab and told her that she is no longer allowed to have the key or drive the car,” he said. “I was very angry.” (Still, according to Shafia, Zainab asked to share the driving duties on the journey home to Montreal. “Even on the highway she requested her mother to give her the car to drive,” he said. “My wife stopped and told me and I said to her: ‘You will get us all killed.’”)

Not once, during either interview, did Shafia show the slightest bit of emotion that might be expected from a man who just lost a wife and three daughters. When Det. Geoff Dempster asked if he had any guess as to how the car ended up underwater, his answer was immediate: “No, no, no, not at all, because this is the first time such an incident has befallen me.”

Less than three weeks later, when investigators bugged the house and the family mini-van, a much different answer quickly emerged: an honour-obsessed father ranting about his dead daughters’ boyfriends and their “treacherous,” Westernized behaviour. “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 told Yahya and Hamed. “God’s curse on them for a generation! May the devil s— on their graves! Is that what a daughter should be? Would [she] be such a whore?”

During another conversation, when Yahya suggested that the two younger girls weren’t as deviant as Zainab, Shafia cut her off. “We subjected ourselves to hardships, we took on drudgery for them, we wash their s— and pee, we wash their clothes, we take them to school and bring them back,” he said. “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.”

Even after his arrest, while riding in the back of a police car with his son, Shafia blamed his daughters. “May God’s fury descend on those girls,” he said. “They did it themselves.”

By the time his testimony finishes, Shafia may be directing some of that fury on his lawyer—for allowing him to take the stand in the first place.