HUFFINGTON POST
10/20/2011 04:00 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

Rideau Canal Car Drownings: Family Murders Were About Honour, Says Crown

KINGSTON, Ont. - A Montreal family couldn't bear the "treachery" of their three teenaged daughters having boyfriends, so they drowned them and the father's first wife, pushing a car into a canal and staging the scene to look like an implausible accident, court heard Thursday.

Days after the bodies were found the father was recorded saying, "There is nothing more valuable than our honour."

Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, her husband Mohammad Shafia, 58, and their son, Hamed Mohammad Shafia, 20, are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder.

Three teenage Shafia sisters, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, along with Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 50, were found dead inside a submerged black Nissan Sentra discovered June 30, 2009 in the Rideau Canal. The family had stopped in Kingston on their way home from a trip to Niagara Falls.

An expert will be called to testify about honour killings and how in extreme cases, killing can be seen in some cultures as a way to restore honour to a family, the Crown attorney said Thursday at the outset of the trial. Disobedience by a female member of the family can cause shame and taint family honour, she said.

Laurie Lacelle quoted police wiretaps made surreptitiously in the days after the deaths that show the family's concern for their honour.

"Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour," Shafia said. "Let's leave our destiny to God, and may God never make me, you or your mother honourless...There is nothing more valuable than our honour."

When police began to suspect the three were involved in the deaths, they told the family they were examining a camera near the scene for clues, in the hopes this would prompt discussion among the Shafias in their car, which the police had bugged. They scoffed and immediately suspected police were bluffing.

"If they had had any proof they would have come for us a long time ago," Shafia said.

Another wiretap recorded Shafia and Yahya talking about their daughters 20 days after they died.

"If we remain alive...we have no tension thinking our daughter is in the arms of this or that boy, this or that man," Shafia said on a wiretap. "God's curse on them for generations. May the devil ...(expletive) on their graves. Is that what a daughter should be? Would a daughter be such a whore?"

"There can be no treachery, no violation more than this," Lacelle quoted Shafia as saying on the wiretaps. "They committed treason from beginning to end. They betrayed humankind. They betrayed Islam...They betrayed everything."

The family, originally from Afghanistan, was in turmoil before the deaths. The eldest daughter, Zainab Shafia, had run away and both of the other two girls had repeatedly told authorities they were afraid and wanted to leave the family home. Shafia and Hamed controlled the home, making the rules and doling out punishment, sometimes violent, Lacelle said.

Zainab had run away from home and her mother convinced her to come home by saying she would let her marry her boyfriend, Lacelle said. But when none of her boyfriend's family showed up to the wedding, Yahya and Hamed Shafia forced Zainab to get it annulled the same day.

Sahar, 17, had a boyfriend and the parents suspected 13-year-old Geeti was also seeing a boy, Lacelle said. Their younger siblings would report to the father and eldest brother when Sahar, 17, was speaking to boys at school. Sahar was suicidal, Lacelle said.

But the troubles within the family weren't exclusively about boys. Zainab and Sahar were resisting their family's urging to wear the hijab, the Crown attorney said. The two sisters loved clothes and dressed fashionably, she said. Geeti had been caught shoplifting, was failing most of her classes and got sent home from school for wearing inappropriate clothing.

Ten days before the girls and Mohammad were found dead, a Google search was conducted on a laptop registered to Shafia and used by his son Hamed, Lacelle said. The words entered were, "where to commit a murder."

Five days before that someone had searched for "facts and documentaries on murders," Lacelle said. Earlier, someone had Googled "can a prisoner have control over their real estate?"

Rona Amir Mohammad was Shafia's first wife, but he married Yahya when it became apparent Mohammad couldn't have children. She helped raise the children and loved them dearly, Lacelle said, but she wrote in a diary that Yahya treated her poorly and Shafia beat her. She wanted to leave, but told family members that she was afraid if she left Shafia would kill her, Lacelle said.

Pictures of Mohammad and the three beautiful, young girls were shown on screens to the jury and the court as Lacelle talked about their lives and their deaths. Shafia and his son showed no emotion, but Yahya leaned forward and appeared to weep as she held a tissue over her face whenever the pictures were flashed on the screen.

The family gave various scenarios at various times suggesting the deaths were a terrible accident, Lacelle said, but there is evidence that one of the family's cars pushed the Nissan Sentra — that Shafia bought for $5,000 a few days before the deaths — into the locks where it was found.

Pieces of the Sentra were found in the damaged front of the family's Lexus SUV. A map of the scene, shown to the jury, indicates the car would have had to go past a locked gate, over a concrete curb and then make two U-turns to end up in the locks of the canal.

The jury will be taken next Thursday to see where the car was found at the locks.

A motel manager will testify that when Shafia and Hamed checked in to two rooms for the family that night, there was some confusion about how many people would be in the rooms. At first Shafia said six. There were 10 people on that family trip.

The cause of death was drowning, but it's impossible to tell if they drowned in the canal or somewhere else, Lacelle said. Moderate bruising was found on the crowns of all the victims' heads except Sahar, she said.

The first witness called in the trial, Kingston police Const. Julia Moore, testified Thursday that when the Nissan Sentra was pulled up from the canal the keys were in the ignition in the off position and the headlights were off, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night and no lights were near the locks, she said.

Outside court, two of the defence lawyers noted that only one side of the story has been heard so far.

"Of course they present a strong case because it's their version," said Yahya's lawyer, David Crowe. "Lots of things on paper look iron clad."

Shafia's lawyer, Peter Kemp, suggested the Crown's opening address left holes in their theory.

"They've indicated what they think the evidence is, but I didn't hear anything there about how they died or when they died or where they died, so those are puzzles that have to be solved," he said outside court.

The trial is expected to last between two and three months. Before the trial got underway Thursday, one of the jurors asked to be excused, saying "the stress is just killing me." Judge Robert Maranger replaced him with one of the two alternate jurors.