Mohammed Shafia, Tooba Yahya, and Hamed Shafia were convicted of first-degree murder on Sunday, January 29th, 2012. They were given life sentences with no chance of parole for 25 years. Although they pleaded not guilty, the three individuals were convicted of killing four family members after their Nissan car was found in the Rideau Canal on June 30th, 2009. The victims included three of Mohammed and Tooba’s daughters, Hamed’s sisters, named Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti, as well as Mohammed’s first childless wife from his polygamous marriage, named Rona Mohammed Amir.
When Justice Robert Maranger gave the accused a moment to speak on the day of the verdict, Mohammed, Tooba, and Hamed each repeated their innocence, calling the accusations “unjust.” After the verdict was announced, the judge referred to the “cold-blooded, shameful murders” of “completely innocent victims” as “heinous,” “despicable,” and from a “completely twisted concept of honour.” Chief Crown prosecutor Gerard Laarhius agreed, stating that the “verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and core principles in a free, democratic society.”
During the almost 3 month trial in which a jury in Kingston, Ontario composed of 5 men and 7 women experienced 40 days of proceedings, the Crown contended that the murder was a planned part of the family’s trip. It was believed that the daughters were betraying their family’s traditional Afghan values by having boyfriends, wearing non-traditional clothing, and resisting the wearing of hijabs. The family moved to Canada in 2007, but fled Afghanistan over 15 years ago. The daughters allegedly struggled to fit in at school while attempting to adhere to their strict and traditional values at home.
Evidence in the trial included searches found on Hamed’s computer such as “Where to commit a murder” and “Can a prisoner have control over his real estate?,” relevant to the case because Mohammed owned several commercial buildings in Montreal. Collision experts claimed that damage found on the Nissan car was caused by contact with the family’s Lexus SUV, supporting the claim that the Lexus was used to push the Nissan into the Canal. The Crown alleged that the women were either drowned or incapacitated prior to the Nissan being submerged in the water, which explains why they were found in the vehicle with a window open and showing no signs of struggle or attempted escape. Three of the victims were later found to have bruising on their heads, supporting the Crown’s allegation that they were incapacitated prior to the drowning.
Several political figures have spoken since the verdict was announced. On Monday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told reporters that the guilty verdict “sends a clear signal that murder is murder in this country, and that if you are going to commit murder for whatever reason you’re going to be held accountable by the courts.” Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson spoke in the House of Commons and said that honour killings are “barbaric and unacceptable in Canada.” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney shared a quote from Canada’s new citizenship guide, tweeting “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings’ … or gender-based violence.” Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose tweeted that “Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture.”
The Canadian Islamic community believes the case and verdict were more about domestic violence than honour killings. The Muslim communities of both Quebec and Ontario expressed feelings of both “relief” and “sadness” following the verdict. Samira Kanji, president of the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto, expressed the community’s general feeling that the media has disproportionately focused on the honour-killing motivation instead of treating the crime simply as murder. Miriam Issa, a Muslim woman residing in Windsor, Ontario, claims it is “ignorant to use Islam to justify these crimes,” arguing that the more important issue in the case is violence against women. Reema Khan agrees, arguing that “essentially, honour killing is just violence against women.”
Throughout the trial, the jury became aware that the Shafia family had been in contact with several police officers and youth protection agencies prior to the tragic events. In March of 2008, Zainab was removed from school by her parents after being seen with an older male. In April of 2009, youth protection workers and police officers interviewed several of the Shafia children at their high school in Montreal, where one of the daughters, Geeti, went so far as to ask to be placed in foster care. However, each case was unable to be pursued further due to lack of evidence and/or lack of legal right to take further action after the children withdrew their claims. However, following the verdict, Montreal’s child protection agency Batshaw Youth and Family Centers admitted that communication failure between the French and English agencies in Montreal may have contributed to the failed attempts to help the Shafia children. The daughters sought help for a last time only two months before their tragic deaths.
Following the verdict, Hamed’s lawyer Patrick McCann said appeals by all three of the convicted are likely. Last week, both Mohammed and Hamed filed separate inmate notices of appeal, and Tooba has 30 days from the January 29th sentencing to do the same. The grounds for appeal include Judge Maranger erring in his claims about several pieces of evidence, among other claims. As of February 5th, a cbc.ca poll demonstrates that 94.73% of respondents agree with the verdict. Regardless of the future outcome of the appeals, child protection and law enforcement agencies must be investigated to ensure that future family cases benefit from the necessary services needed and act accordingly in order to avoid far less tragic outcomes.
– Marisa Corona