On June 30, 2009, sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, along with their stepmother, Rona Amir, were found drowned in a submerged car in the Kingston Mills lock in eastern Ontario.
The family had been returning to their home in Montreal following a trip to Niagara Falls, Ont. They had stopped at a motel in Kingston for the night.
The deaths were initially considered an accident. But on July 23, 2009, Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya Mohammad and their son, Hamed, were arrested on charges of four counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They each pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.
On Oct. 20, 2011, a court in Kingston, Ont. began hearing testimony in the so-called "canal deaths trial."
On Jan. 29, 2012, the jury found all three accused guilty of first-degree murder. They were each handed an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Here is a summary of events as reported by media covering the trial.
The main players
Zainab Shafia: 19, the eldest daughter of Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Mohammad Yahya. In May 2009, Zainab married a man named Ammar Wahid, but the marriage was annulled after a day.
Sahar Shafia: 17, daughter of Shafia and Yahya. Attended Antoine-de-St.-Exupery high school in Montreal and once told assistant school principal Josée Fortin that she "wanted to die. I had enough. I wanted to die."
Geeti Shafia: 13, daughter of Shafia and Yahya. Attended Antoine-de-St.-Exupery high school in Montreal and, according to prosecutor Laurie Lacelle, was a feisty, rebellious teenager who told school staff and a youth protection worker that she wanted to be removed from the family’s house.
Rona Amir Mohammad: 50, first wife of Mohammad Shafia. She lived in a polygamous household with Shafia, Yahya and their children. Called "auntie" by her husband's children, Rona was presented to immigration lawyer Sabine Venturelli as a cousin helping to raise the children.
Mohammad Shafia: 59, father of seven children and husband of Rona Amir Mohammad and Tooba Mohammad Yahya. He is the owner of a real estate management company, an import company and a Laval, Que.-based commercial mall. Born in Afghanistan, the businessman also lived in Dubai and Pakistan, and moved to Montreal in about 2007.
Tooba Yahya Mohammad: 42, mother of seven children, wife of Mohammad Shafia.
Hamed Shafia: 21, second-born child of Shafia and Yahya, and brother of the three sisters/victims.
The prosecution’s version of events
- Crown prosecutors maintain Shafia, Yahya and their son Hamed colluded in killing Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, and their stepmother Rona Amir Mohammad, by pushing their Nissan Sentra into the Kingston canal.
- A police officer testified that the car's path included traveling past a locked gate, over a concrete curb and a rocky outcrop, followed by two U-turns in order to end up in the locks of the canal. "It had to be driven there on purpose," Const. Brent White testified.
- OPP officer Chris Prent testified that collision evidence suggests the Sentra was pushed into the canal. The Crown alleges the four victims, who were either unconscious or already dead, were in the Nissan when someone positioned the car in front of the lock, rolled down the window, got out and put the vehicle into drive. The Crown alleges that after the car got unexpectedly stuck, either Shafia or his son got behind the wheel of their Lexus SUV and nudged the Nissan into the canal. The action left dents on both vehicles. Pieces of the Lexus’s broken headlight were found not far from where the Nissan dropped into the canal.
- A Kingston police officer testified that in the days prior to the deaths, someone did web searches on a laptop used by Hamed Shafia for terms such as "where to commit a murder" and areas with bodies of water.
- The Crown calls the deaths an "honour killing," and claims it was due to the fact that Zainab and Sahar had brought shame on the devoutly Islamic family by dressing in less modest Western garb and keeping secret boyfriends.
- In secret wiretaps recorded in the days after the deaths, Mohammad Shafia can be heard saying, "God curse their generation, they were filthy and rotten children," and "To hell with them and their boyfriends, may the devil shit on their grave." Further wiretaps reveal Shafia saying, "Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour."
The defence’s version of events
- Shafia and Yahya maintain that they were in a Kingston, Ont., hotel at the time of the accident and didn’t hear about it until the next day. They testified that Zainab, who they claim was an inexperienced driver, came by the hotel on the night of June 30 to get the keys for the Nissan. They theorize that Zainab subsequently took her sisters and stepmother on a joy ride that ended tragically in the canal. Hamed Shafia did not testify in court, but told a private investigator that he followed the girls to the Kingston Mills locks and that they went in by accident, but that he didn't call 911 or tell anyone for fear of his father's reaction.
- Addressing the prosecution’s case, defense lawyer Peter Kemp said the time it would take to individually drown the four victims, place their bodies into the Nissan, push it into the lock and then drop off Tooba and Shafia at the motel doesn't fit with the evidence presented.
- Addressing the notion of "honour killings," Kemp said, "If you comb through the Qur’an, you would not find a single passage that advocates honour killing … but, there are plenty of prohibitions against murder." "My honour is important to me," Shafia told the jury. "But, to kill someone, you can’t regain your reputation and honour."
- Shafia and Yahya testified that they "were a liberal family" that had emigrated from Afghanistan because "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. As for his outbursts on the wiretap, he said he felt betrayed seeing the photos of his daughters in revealing attire with their boyfriends, but didn’t mean them actual harm. Expert witness Nabi Misdaq testified that Dari speakers from Afghanistan often curse about, and not directly to, people, but that they are just expressions that they don't mean literally. Shafia and Yahya claim to have found the photos after their daughters' deaths.
- Another Shafia son, who can’t be named due to a court order, testified that he may have been the one who did the computer search on murder because he was thinking of taking his own life and couldn’t think of the word "suicide."