Shafia father denies involvement in family members' deaths

A Montreal man accused of killing his first wife and three teenage daughters denied prosecutors' allegations and insisted his dead children had been "cruel," while testifying in his own defence.

Defence opens case with accused testifying in his own defence

Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba, Mohammad Yahya, and their son, Hamed Mohammed Shafia, are escorted by police officers into the Frontenac County Court House on the first day of their trial in Kingston, Ont., in October. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Montreal man accused of killing his first wife and three teenage daughters denied prosecutors' allegations and insisted his dead children had been "cruel," while testifying in his own defence.

Mohammad Shafia spent several hours in the witness box recounting his family's history, occasionally breaking down in tears as he answered his lawyer's questions Thursday at the jury trial being held in Kingston, Ont.

Crown prosecutors then cross-examined the family patriarch for the remainder of the day, pressing him on wiretap evidence, and his dead daughters' allegations of domestic abuse and dysfunction in the Afghan-Canadian family.

Shafia, 58, is the first defence witness to be called in the canal deaths trial. He has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder, along with his 41-year-old wife, Tooba Yahya, and their 20-year-old son, Hamed.

The bodies of three Shafia sisters —Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13 — were found along with Mohammad Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, on June 30, 2009, inside a car submerged in the Rideau Canal near Kingston.

The family was returning home after a trip to Niagara Falls, Ont., at the time of the deaths.

The Crown alleges the sisters, two of whom were dating, were the victims of so-called honour killings.

Father says he advised his children

Shafia described how he fled his native Afghanistan along with his family in order to protect them. 

"We were a liberal family," he said, answering defence lawyer Peter Kemp's questions. "And the women were in constant danger from the Taliban."

Shafia testified he did not interfere in his children's lives, but tried to give them advice.

Shafia was also questioned about his daughters' clothing choices. He told the court he let his daughters dress as they liked and that he never forced them to wear the hijab.

"I never interfere in the clothing my children wear. It was up to them," he said.

When asked about the marriage of his daughter Zainab, Shafia broke down in tears. He said he advised Zainab not to marry her boyfriend because he did not think he was "good."

Zainab later married him, but the marriage was annulled within 24 hours.

Shafia's lawyer also questioned him about the prosecution's wiretap evidence, asking for clarification about what he meant at certain points.

In one recording, Shafia said, "Would a daughter be such a whore," and called for "the devil" to defecate "on their graves."

Shafia told the court he meant that the devil and God would be the ones to judge whether his daughters were bad or good.

Shafia also testified he sounded angry on the tapes because he felt betrayed after finding photographs of one of his daughters in revealing clothing after her death.

"I'd forgiven her," Shafia said, referring to Zainab. "After her death, when I saw those things [photos of her in lingerie], yes I was upset," he told the court.

Crown alleges deaths were 'honour killings'

During the first six weeks of the trial, prosecutors presented wiretap evidence and witness testimony to back up their claim that Shafia, his second wife, and his son orchestrated the canal deaths.

The prosecution alleges the slayings were sparked by the parents' anger over their girls' boyfriends, and how they dressed.

Crown prosecutors wrapped up their case on Monday with testimony from Shahrzad Mojab, a women's studies professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in so-called honour killings.

Mojab told the courtroom that in some cultures, honour is valued above human life.

This belief is seen predominantly in the Middle East, Mojab said.

When family honour is threatened, it is acceptable and expected that a male family member could kill a relative.