The Shafia family murders took place on June 30, 2009 in Kingston, Ontario. The Shafia sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar 17 and Geeti, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammed, 50, were found dead inside an automobile discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal. They were the daughters of Mohammad Shafia and his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya. Rona Amir Mohammed was the first wife of Mr. Shafia in his polygamist household.
Even though the death of the four women were qualified as ‘Honour killings’ by the media and the trial judge, I find it impossible to use the word honour when it comes to what happened on that fateful night. There was nothing honorable involved in the actions of Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba and their 20 year old son Hamed.
The Shafia family was originally from Afghanistan and had moved to Dubai where Mohammad made a fortune in real estate and was apparently the top seller of electronic products in the region. As immigration rules prevented him from getting citizenship for his family in the United Arab Emirates, he decided in 2007 to immigrate to Canada and settle in a borough of Montreal called Saint-Léonard. This neighborhood is considered Montreal’s second Little Italy and attracts many new immigrants.
The Italian communities are extremely well-integrated in Montreal. They actually share quite a few traits with the French Canadians: they are Catholic, extremely family-oriented and usually quite sociable, friendly, generous and animated. It is a match made in heaven and residents of other neighborhoods love to visit Saint-Léonard to shop in specialty food stores and small markets. You say tomato, I say Little Italy. The Italian mafia is another story but I hear their tomatoes are good and they love their family so I will leave it at that.
The same cannot be said about the integration of a Muslim family like the Shafias whose sojourn in Canada turned out to be a match made in hell. The Patriarch had come to Canada to run a profitable business and was the proud owner of a $2 million shopping mall in the suburb of Laval. He had qualified under the Quebec investor’s immigrant program and $1.6 million of his investment had been paid in cash.
He probably never researched or cared about the unwritten laws and customs of Canada before establishing residence in Saint-Léonard. There was a Mosque and an Afghan community in town and that was good enough for him. He continued traveling abroad and felt settled as long as he did not have to adapt to new rules. In truth, Mohammad Shafia was not actually a man to play by the rules anyway.
Polygamy is legal in Afghanistan but not in Canada so he fooled the authorities and brought his first wife Rona to Canada as a domestic servant on a visitor’s visa. His second wife Tooba came in through legal channels. As his marriage to Rona was childless, Mohammad had taken a second wife who was able to give him two boys and five girls — three of whom he would ultimately dispose of. Rona was more or less a slave of the couple and lived a life of quiet desperation. Her identity documents, including her passport, were in their possession and her visa’s renewal was held over her head constantly.
Rona the unloved was close to the children she helped raised and was introduced to everyone as the ‘aunt’ of the family. Before coming to Canada, she had stayed in France with relatives who warned her against accompanying the family, but she considered herself their true mother and soon followed.
Meanwhile, Tooba would taunt her and tell her in no uncertain terms that she would never enter the new palatial house, soon to be constructed for the family in a new part of town. This scared Rona. She began making regular visits to a public phone booth to secretly call a cousin living in the States to plead with her to help her escape. This same cousin now regrets dearly not having tried to smuggle her into the U.S.
Mohammad Shafia started losing control of his daughters the minute he established himself on Canadian soil. This uneducated, self-made and small- minded man from the school of Hard Knocks became very controlling as the girls blossomed into real beauties and flourished at their new school. The boys liked them and that made Mohammad seethe.
Instead of using his wealth to send them to private schools with a more rigid dress and moral code, he endlessly blasted the way they were now dressing and the freedom they were enjoying in an environment where he had implanted them and to which they were simply adapting.
They were forced to wear scarves but would remove them and yank up their skirts the minute they were out of the house. Mohammed’s eldest son Hamed became the Mini-Patriarch and was in charge of checking on his sisters to make sure they did not talk to boys or dress inappropriately. They feared him and would constantly go behind his back until he would catch them breaking the rules.
The Shafia girls’ academic performance started to suffer because of their problems at home. The teachers were informed of incidents of brutality from the father and brother, but when they would pay a visit to the house or have a conversation with the parents, everything would be fine and the girls would retract their stories.
When Zainab met a boyfriend in class, her father forced her to quit school. Sahar fainted in her class in May 2009 and not one member of the family came to see her in the hospital as they were forbidden to do so by Mohammad. Instead of letting his daughters wear dresses he disapproved of at a relative’s wedding, he cut them from their body with scissors and ordered them to stay home.
It seems that Mohammad had reached a boiling point and believed his daughters were contaminated. They were shaming him by dressing in revealing clothes and consorting with boys. So he decided to cut them out of his family to keep the gangrene from spreading, without realizing that he was the one failing them. He cooked up a plan to take the three girls and Rona on a trip to Niagara Falls and Toronto in the family Lexus SUV and a new clunker he had bought for the occasion. A used black Nissan was purchased one day before the trip. It was going to prove to be a fatal mistake because it had front-wheel drive which would play a crucial role in the killings.
The girls were happy about the trip and because their parents, for some reason, were recently more relaxed and permissive. Was it the beginning of a new era for them? Could it be that they finally saw the light and would let them live their life and date their boyfriends?
They left with their cell phones and took several photos of the sites and texted their friends along the way. Sahar had a clandestine boyfriend and according to him, she felt strange during this fateful trip. Something was off but she could not put her finger on it.
As for the rest of the story, all we know is that the family stopped at a Kingston motel and rented 2 rooms at 2 a.m. on June 30 and in the morning, as he was checking out, Mohammad the millionaire haggled over a motel bill. That was a few hours after he killed his three daughters and first wife.
During the night, Hamed had driven the Lexus SUV back to Montreal and called 911 to report a minor collision with a guard-rail to explain the presence of a broken headlight and accompanying dent. He returned to the Kingston motel in the morning with the family van. Later on, he and his parents dropped the remaining children at a restaurant and went to the police station at 12:30 p.m. to report their 4 family members missing.
Meanwhile, a car had been discovered submerged in the canal. There were four female bodies in the car. Geeti and Zainab in the front and Rona and Sanar in the back. None of them were wearing a seatbelt. Sanar had no shoes on and Zainab had a sweater on backwards – quite an eerie scene. Three of the four women had fresh bruises on the back of their heads and their seats were reclined at an awkward angle.
The canal was not very deep and you would think that the occupants would have tried to come up to the surface and climb on the roof of the car, but there was no sign of any activity having taken place in the vehicle. The wheels of the Nissan were jerked to one side, the ignition lights and wipers were on and the car was in 1st gear. The driver’s window was open and they later discovered some scrape marks on the undercarriage.
Right from the start of the investigation, the Shafias’ statements were full of inconsistencies. Shafia and daughter Yanya testified that Zainab came to her parent’s room to get the car keys to retrieve her luggage and they never saw her or the others again. Hamed had a different story: he said he saw them leave the parking lot and he followed them for their safety because Zainab was an inexperienced driver. They ended up at the Kingston Mills where he accidentally rear-ended the Nissan with the Lexus. He picked up broken pieces of his SUV’s headlights and heard a splash as the Nissan fell in the water.
Hamed called out his sister’s names and honked the horn for help. He waited not knowing what to do and left, determined not to tell a soul. Tooba had another tale to tell: she was with her husband and Hamed when the car fell in the canal by accident and then she fainted. She does not remember the rest.
It turns out that if the black Nissan Sentra bought by cheapskate Mohammad did not have front-wheel drive – meaning the car needed traction for forward propulsion – Hamed would not have had to push it with the Lexus and would not have ended up with a broken headlight and a dent on his SUV. They were too stingy to sacrifice the Lexus or the family van in the canal so they opted instead for a cheaper model that would become the demise of their ‘perfect’ plan.
No need to tell you that this infernal trio ended up on trial for killing four of their family members. The judge and the media referred to the crimes as Honour killings because of the content of the secretly recorded conversations the family had during the investigation. They were led to believe by investigators that a building close to the scene of the ‘accident’ had a camera that had filmed the event by the canal. That’s all it took for them to go on a road trip to check it out. In the van bugged by the police, Mohammad made his feelings known very clearly.
“If, God forbid, God forbid, there was one in that little room, all three of us would have been recorded,” Tooba said.
“No,” Shafia answered. “Had there been one there, they would have checked it first thing and they would have held you to account that night.”
Over the next four days—until their arrests on July 22, 2009—Shafia ranted about his “shameless” and “blasted” daughters being “in the arms” of boyfriends. “We have no tension in our hearts,” he said. “May the devil s–t on their graves!”
“They violated us immensely,” he declared in another intercept. “They betrayed humankind, they betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed our tradition and they betrayed everything.”
On the day a search warrant was executed on the family home, Shafia declared: “Even if they hoist me up into the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour. Let’s leave our destiny to God and may God never make me, you or your mother honourless.”
Connecting the dots was not difficult for the jury after hearing the dishonest testimonies, and visiting the Kingston Mills Locks to view the crime scene. Tooba testified that she had never heard of honour killings before. The father remained arrogant and unrepentant and asserted his parental authority: he needed to control his daughters’ sexuality as any good father would.
As for all the horrible things he said on tape, that is how they expressed themselves in his culture. Everything on tape was in his native Dari and he even blamed the translator for the interpretation. Hamed remained loyal to his parents and never turned against them.
Surprisingly, the president of the Afghan-Quebec cultural association said he had never heard of such a crime and despite the jury’s verdict and the opinion of the judge, he is not sure a crime has taken place. Other members of the Afghan community have mixed opinions on the subject.
The three family members were found guilty and sentenced to life for four counts of first-degree murder. The judge declared the crime heinous and cold-blooded. A young female jury sobbed after the verdict was announced and the three defendants declared their innocence once more. The head of this serpent had been severed.
Corrections Canada does not release information about the placement of prisoners. The trio is in custody since their convictions. If ever released, they will be kicked out of the country. They are probably in protective custody because of the notoriety of their crime and the fact that the victims were four women. So far, the three of them have filed notices of appeal.
The moral of this revolting tale is that we have to find ways to accommodate immigrants fairly without letting culturally accepted criminal behavior infiltrate our values. The schools have to train their teachers to react appropriately to signs of distress from students of fanatically religious families. A Charter of Values must exist and a binding agreement must be entered into by the country of residence and the newcomers. Cultural clashes created in the name of a good investment are not the kind of long term returns our modern society should strive for.
If I could talk to Mohammad Shafia, I would simply tell him that blood is always thicker than water, even at the bottom of a canal. And that we will carry his lost daughters in our hearts until he decides to become a real man of honour by finally opening his heart to bring them home. It could be a long wait.
UPDATE: Click here to read an article about the Shafia’s appeal being heard in Toronto court on March 4th, 2016.