“We are not murderers”

At the “honour killing” trial, an accused mother is confronted with the prosecution’s full version of events
Tooba Yahya and Mohammad Shafia leave the Frontenac county courthouse in Kingston Ontario on Friday Jan. 13, 2012. The woman accused of killing her three daughters says she was told only after their deaths that her husband had said he wanted to kill the eldest one. 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.

Tooba Yahya steered the Nissan Sentra into an empty parking lot that night, knowing full well that everyone else inside the car—three daughters and a fellow wife—were about to die. It was all part of the plan, concocted well in advance with husband and son: they would drop the younger kids at a nearby motel, while Yahya waited in the darkness with the corpses-to-be. If she wrestled with any second thoughts, an urge to warn her girls about their impending execution, she fought it. The four passengers had no clue what was coming.

Such was the chilling scenario presented Friday by prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis, cross-examining Yahya for a fourth consecutive day. After dozens of witnesses and weeks of testimony, Laarhuis laid out the most detailed version yet of the Crown’s theory: father and brother rejoined Yahya at the Kingston Mills Locks, drowned the women (specific location unknown), stuffed their bodies back inside the Nissan, and nudged the car toward the water. But their master plan—to make it look like a joyride gone wrong—had one fatal flaw: the Sentra got stuck on the canal’s concrete lip.

Frantic, one of the three suspects had to jump behind the wheel of the getaway car, a Lexus SUV, and ram the dead the rest of the way.

The next morning, a police diver recovered all four women from the water: three Shafia sisters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; Geeti 13), and Rona Amir Mohammad, the girls’ supposed “auntie” but in fact their dad’s first wife in the secretly polygamous family.

Investigators working aboveground also found shattered bits of Lexus headlight, the smoking gun that would lead them to their suspects: Mohammad Shafia, father and husband; Yahya, mother and co-wife; and Hamed Shafia, brother and surrogate son.

Nearly three years later, there are so many conflicting storylines that Laarhuis deserves a conviction just for keeping them all straight. First the family told the cops that Zainab took the car keys during a motel stop in Kingston (the Afghan family, wealthy new immigrants to Canada, were on their way home to Montreal after a Niagara Falls vacation). Then, after their arrests, Yahya admitted to her interrogator that all three were at the locks when the car went in, but that she fainted and doesn’t remember anything else. And now, on the witness stand, she insists that everything she said to Inspector Shahin Mehdizadeh was a lie, a desperate attempt to stop the questions and save Hamed from some unspecified form of “cold water” torture. As Yahya said yet again on Friday: “I was making up something. I was telling him something that he should leave me alone.”

But Laarhuis spent the day suggesting the opposite: that what Yahya said to the inspector was very, very truthful. “You were giving details that only somebody who had been to that sight at night—and, in fact, that night—would know,” he said.

Yahya, now 42, told Insp. Mehdizadeh that she and the others were waiting “calmly” for Shafia and Hamed to return from the motel, and when they did, she “ran” to meet them in the Lexus. “They would have no reason to expect anything bad would happen, right?” Laarhuis asked. “They were with their mother, right?”

“Yes,” Yahya replied.

“And they were calm?”

“Indeed, it was night and we were all sitting calm there.”

“Why would you run toward the Lexus?” he continued.

“As I said, these were not true,” she answered.

“I’m putting to you that it was true,” he said. “And the reason you ran to the Lexus is that you knew in advance—it was part of the plan you were involved in—that when they returned, that was the end. They would be killed, and the Nissan was going into the water. You knew that you had to get out of that Nissan, and you ran to the Lexus.”

“I never knew about that,” she snapped back. “That was not true. What I told him was just lies.”

Laarhuis then listed some of the facts that are definitely not lies. Shafia purchased the Nissan just one day before the road trip. When it was pulled from the water, both front seats were reclined all the way. Zainab’s cardigan was on backwards. No one was wearing a seatbelt. And three of the victims (all but Sahar) had fresh bruises on the top of their heads. “Do you have any explanation as to how that happened?” the prosecutor asked, referring to the injuries.

“I didn’t see anything like that on their heads,” Yahya answered, her voice growing louder. “We will never do anything like this. Don’t say anything like this.”

Laarhuis, speaking slowly and deliberately, continued to peel back the Crown’s theory. “You took this Nissan, with the bodies inside, and somebody drove it to the other side and somebody positioned it on that plateau at the edge of Lock #1, where the Nissan went in,” he told her. “Somebody left the car running, rolled down the window, put the gear shift in neutral, the seats reclined, the headlights off, the dome light off, got out of the car, closed the door, reached through the open window, and put the car from neutral into gear one, thinking on its own power the Nissan would go into the water.” The courtroom, packed to capacity, was silent.

“What none of you expected—what was not part of the plan—was that the Nissan would get hung up,” Laarhuis went on. “Do you agree with that?”

“No, never,” Yahya said.

“And when the Nissan got hung up, there was an emergency. You had bodies inside the car hung up on the edge of the canal. And the emergency required you driving the Lexus, positioning it behind the Nissan. And that is what caused the damage to the headlight of the Lexus.”

“No sir,” Yahya said, now sobbing. “We are not murderers. We were a very sincere and collected family. This crime, we will never do such a crime. I am a mother, and if you were a mother, you would know the heart of a mother for a child. Don’t ever tell me that I killed my children. Never!” In the courtroom prisoners’ box, Shafia covered his face with Kleenex. Beside him, Hamed looked straight ahead, eyes dry.

As the jury knows, Hamed drove straight to Montreal that morning, where he staged a single-car accident in an empty parking lot. He then returned to Kingston with the family’s third car, a Pontiac minivan, and accompanied his parents to police headquarters to file a missing persons report. “He was in such a hurry with the Lexus that he took your suitcases, your wallet, and your purse with him,” Laarhuis said. “Because that wasn’t planned.”

According to prosecutors, this was a crime of “honour,” motivated by Shafia’s rage over his daughters’ rebellious, Westernized behaviour. (Zainab ran off to marry a man her parents despised; Sahar wore mini-skirts and had a secret boyfriend; Geeti, just 13, was failing all her classes and begging to be placed in foster care.) In one wiretap, Shafia summed up his anger this way: “They messed up. There was no other way.”

And on the night of her arrest, Yahya did her best to pin the blame squarely on her husband—not her or her son.

“It’s obvious that he has done it.”

“The decision he had made to kill his own children, believe me, I didn’t know about it.”

“In fact, I didn’t help Shafia in killing them.”

“Never tell my husband that I have said this.”

But on Friday, Yahya repeated her new story: that everything was a lie, and what she’s saying now is the truth. Honest. She was “under pressure,” she says, and scared to death that her beloved son was being tortured with “cold water.”

“You want to save Hamed all the time from going underwater,” Laarhuis said. “Why didn’t you save your daughters from going underwater?”

“If I had know my daughters were going underwater I would have given my life so they wouldn’t die,” she wailed. “I am a mother.”

Mom will be back on the witness stand Monday morning.