The Shafia honour killing trial—Chapter 2

The roots of a tortured clan
This court release photo show the Tooba Yahya (wedding gown) and Mohammad Shafia at their wedding at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in 1988, as his first wife Rona Amir Mohammad (right), is shown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
The Honour Killing Trial - Chapter 2
On the ebook in the Maclean’s magazine iPad app – Get the full story, plus, a week-by-week account by award-winning reporter Michael Friscolanti, as well as documents, video and audio evidence from the Kingston courtroom, and the heartbreaking diary of Rona, Shafia’s first wife and one of his victims.
Or download our 10-chapter series detailing how the case unfolded. 

By Western standards, Mohammad Shafia is not an educated man; born in middle-class Kabul in the early 1950s, he didn’t reach the seventh grade. But as an entrepreneur, he was gifted and ambitious, a stingy deal-maker who turned a small electronics shop into a multi-million-dollar import-export operation. His specialties were Panasonic radios and Peacock brand thermoses, shipped in from Japan. “It was only me,” Shafia told the jury, the pride still evident in his raspy voice. “I had the monopoly on importing those.”

Like many in Afghanistan, Shafia’s first marriage was an arranged one. It was his mother who first spotted young Rona Amir, the pretty daughter of a retired army colonel. Three decades later, police on the other side of the world would find Rona’s diary, detailing the events that led to her wedding day—and the years of “torture” that followed.

“[Shafia’s mother] invited all of us to her house so that her son could have a good look at me,” she wrote in her native Dari. “After our visit her son announced his consent.” When one of Rona’s brothers asked if she “accepted” the union, her answer was eerily prescient: “Give me away in marriage if he is a good man; don’t if he is not.”

They were married in February 1979, with a swank reception at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. The bride wore a frilly dress, baby blue, with a matching veil. The groom sported a purple suit and long sideburns. In one wedding snapshot, Rona and Shafia are smiling beside their cake, three layers covered in pink and yellow icing. “After getting married,” Rona would later write, “my lot in life began a downward spiral.”

Sadly, Rona was unable to conceive. For years, she and Shafia tried to have children, even travelling to India for repeated fertility treatments. Nothing worked. “My husband started picking on me,” she wrote. “He wouldn’t allow me to go visit my mother, and at home he would find fault with my cooking and serving meals, and he would find excuses to harass me.” Finally, after nearly a decade without a baby, she told Shafia: “Go and take another wife, what can I do?” He did.

Tooba Mohammad Yahya was 17 years old, a relative of one of Shafia’s friends. He was double her age, old enough to be her father.

Shafia said it was Rona who handpicked his second bride, and Rona who happily planned the reception (at the same posh hotel, with her in the wedding party). “She told me: ‘Children are important to us and I want you to find another woman to marry,’ ” he said. “That was her agreement.”

Rona’s recollection was somewhat different. “I was visited with a new catastrophe.” (Tooba wasn’t exactly thrilled, either. On the day of her arrest, while sitting in the back of a police car, an officer asked if she loved her husband. “I was not in love,” she answered, in between sobs. “But I fell in love after we got married.”)

In a photo from wedding number two, Shafia is dressed in a black suit and matching moustache, his new bride on one arm, his first on the other. The wives called him “Shafie.”

They were not a family of three for very long. Within weeks of the wedding, Tooba was pregnant with Zainab, the baby her new husband so badly wanted. The moment wasn’t captured on camera, and Shafia never mentioned it during hours of police interviews and courtroom testimony. But in September 1989, he held his tiny daughter for the first time, cradling her in the same hands that, years later, would take her life.

At home, Rona played the obligatory role of surrogate mother, helping Tooba care for the baby and tend to chores while still praying for a child of her own. Yet even then, in the early months of their polygamy, Rona realized what was happening. Tooba, fertile and conniving, had “schemed to gradually separate” her from their shared spouse. “After their son Hamed was born,” Rona wrote, “happiness left me.”

In a diary dripping with heartache, Sahar’s arrival, in October 1991, was a rare moment of joy. Tooba “gave” the baby girl to her barren fellow wife to raise as her own.

But it wasn’t long before Tooba made another announcement: “Shafie should stay three nights with her and one night with me,” Rona recalled. “Because she had given Sahar to me, I agreed.” Soon, Shafia stopped sleeping with his first wife altogether.

Sahar was still a baby when Afghanistan’s civil war crossed into the capital city, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. The Shafias, fleeing by car, arrived at the Pakistani border as a family of six: Rona, Zainab and Sahar, destined to die at the Kingston Mills locks. And Shafia, Tooba and Hamed, destined to stand trial for their murders.

At the time, Tooba was pregnant with her fourth child, another daughter. The girl’s identity is protected by a publication ban (we’ll call her “A”). But during the trial, jurors heard plenty of evidence about her eventual role in the Shafia household: a standout student who spied on her sisters and reported back to mom and dad. “B,” a second son, was also born in Pakistan. He, too, would be cast as a family snitch, tattling on the girls and defending his parents from the witness stand.

Geeti—the youngest daughter fished from the canal—was baby number six. After she was born, the family started packing yet again, this time for the United Arab Emirates. Shafia launched a new company (M. Shafee Trading) and business was better than ever; barely a year after arriving in Dubai, Panasonic awarded him $50,000 for being the top seller in the region. He would later expand his operation to include used cars imported from the United States—purchased, ironically enough, from online auctions that specialize in damaged vehicles.

It was in Dubai that Shafia’s kids tasted Western culture for the first time. Although the UAE is an Islamic country, the children attended a private American school, where they wore uniforms, learned to speak English, and met kids from around the world.

For Rona, though, the move left her more marginalized than ever. She wrote about Tooba learning to drive, buying as much gold jewellery as she pleased, and implementing “all the schemes she had” to position herself as the preferred wife. “Not aggressively, through shouting and quarrelling, but gently and smoothly, without putting herself at risk of any censure,” Rona recalled. “Miserable me who wouldn’t question Shafie in regard to anything swallowed everything without a word, because I had no option.” (While in Dubai, Tooba gave birth for the final time. “C,” now in foster care, is subject to the same publication ban as her siblings.)

Although the Shafias stayed in Dubai for more than a decade, they spent much of that time searching for a new home, a place that could offer them citizenship, not just residency. At one point, the family tried to immigrate to New Zealand, but Rona didn’t pass the required medical. They even spent a brief period in Australia, only to return to Dubai within a year. (Tooba said she and the children didn’t like Australia, but Rona claimed they were deported because her husband—“the silly fool”—ignored the rules of his visa and purchased property.) Whatever the reason, Rona felt the brunt of her husband’s wrath. “Whatever I did, if I sat down, if I got up, if I ate anything, there was blame and censure attached to it,” she wrote. “In short, he had made life a torture for me.”

By 2007, Shafia had finally found his ticket out of Dubai: 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. (Back then, the required amount was $400,000; it has since doubled to $800,000.) Shafia had no trouble covering the cost. His only challenge was figuring out how to hide the truth about his two wives, a violation of Canadian law that would have certainly derailed his application. In the end, he listed only one spouse on his paperwork: Tooba.

So in June 2007, while the rest of the family boarded a plane to Canada, Rona was sent to live with relatives in Europe while Shafia concocted a plan to bring her here. It was the first time she had ever been separated from the others, and to her own surprise, she missed them terribly. “It was really unbearable,” Rona wrote. “No one can read the future. I wish I hadn’t [missed them] so much.”

One of the first things Shafia did when he landed in Montreal was purchase a new car: a silver Lexus SUV.

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