Shafia daughter's boyfriend wishes he 'stood up' to family

Ammar Wahid, the former boyfriend of the eldest Shafia daughter, Zainab, says he still struggles with whether he could have done something to rescue her from controlling and abusive family members who eventually killed her.

Zainab's boyfriend Ammar Wahid speaks out after trial

Ammar Wahid, the former boyfriend of the eldest Shafia daughter, Zainab, says he should have stood up directly to her father, and brother, before it was too late. Zainab Shafia, and her two sisters and stepmother, were found in a submerged car in the Rideau Canal in June 2009. (CBC)

The former boyfriend of the eldest Shafia daughter, Zainab, says he still struggles with whether he could have done more to rescue her from her controlling and abusive family who eventually killed her.

Ammar Wahid, in an exclusive interview with CBC's The Fifth Estate, says it's a thought that is still hard to live with, more than two years after she was killed at the hands of her father, mother, and brother.

Watch The Fifth Estate

The CBC's The Fifth Estate has more exclusive interviews from those who knew what was going on in the house of Shafia: relatives, teachers and the two young men who dared to have feelings for the Shafia sisters.

The House of Shafia airs at 9 pm/9:30 pm NT on CBC-TV and will be rebroadcast on CBC News Network.

"I feel like if I was able to take a step to take her out of the house, I should’ve went further. I should’ve, should’ve stood up more. And I feel like I should’ve stood up directly to her father and brother, which I didn’t do," he said.

Wahid said he doesn't know how they would have reacted, but wondered if maybe they would have listened, or reacted differently.

"I wasn’t worried about the outcome, how they would’ve reacted with me, but she would’ve been alive," Wahid said. "There’s a lot of possibilities."

Zainab Shafia, 19, was found in a submerged car at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, along with her sisters Sahar, 17 and Geeti, 13, and their stepmother Rona Amir Mohammad, 50, on June 30, 2009.

Zainab Shafia and her boyfriend, Ammar Wahid, are shown in a court exhibit photo released at the Shafia trial in Kingston, Ont. (Canadian Press)

Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed, who had pleaded not guilty, were convicted last month of first-degree murder in their deaths.

They were each given an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. All three have since filed an intention to appeal their convictions.

During the trial, the Crown maintained that a family road trip to Niagara Falls was part of a plot to kill the four because they had tainted the family's honour. The family patriarch was allegedly upset that his two eldest daughters wanted boyfriends, a concept that betrayed what he considered to be traditional Afghan values.

'I'd like to be your friend'

Wahid's relationship with the eldest Shafia daughter began in 2008, after he noticed Zainab at school. Too shy to talk to her, he decided to send her a Valentine's Day card.

"I wrote on the note, 'I'd like to be your friend. I'd like to know you. And if you think this is appropriate, and if you accept my friendship, wear [a] white dress tomorrow,'" he said.

The next day, Valentine's Day, he saw Zainab again from afar — dressed in white.

"I was still not 100 per cent sure if that's a yes or a no, but I was happy that at least she wore, she's wearing a white dress," Wahid said.

Zainab Shafia, shown in a photo after her wedding to Ammar Wahid, was happy to be married, but it was short lived. The marriage was annulled less than 24 hours later. (Family photo)

More notes, passed through friends, followed after that. Eventually, they began talking on the phone.

Wahid later learned how strict Zainab's family was in an email, in which she warned Wahid to "act like [a] complete stranger" when Hamed was around. 

"The more I got to know her, she told me she would get hit or she would get beaten up … she even said, certain times, that she would, her father would kill her," Wahid said. 

"He's that type of man."

Wahid said, at the time, he didn't believe her father was capable of murder.

"I'm like, 'you, you, that's just in your head. You can't think like that. I'm like, he will never kill you. She's like, 'you don't know.' She kept on repeating, 'you don't know my father.'"

They dated discreetly, but one day when Mohammad Shafia was on a business trip to Dubai, Wahid visited Zainab at home. The couple were caught by Hamed, and as punishment, Zainab was pulled out of school for a year.

Zainab eventually ran away to a women's shelter, with her boyfriend's help. Her parents called the police to bring her home, but at 19, Zainab was an adult and did not have to comply.

Yahya convinced her to come home by promising that she could marry Wahid.

A happy wedding day

He remembers their wedding day as the happiest day of his life. Zainab was happy too, he said.

But Wahid's family members didn't attend the wedding, a sharp rebuke to a family obsessed with honour.

On the day of the reception, there was terse talk between Zainab, her mother and her brother, Wahid said.

Zainab and Sahar Shafia in a photo taken five days before their deaths. The image was recovered from one of the girls' cellphones. (Trial evidence)

"I don't know what happened during that 15-20 minutes. She came up to me and told me I can't do this.… She was crying, she told me 'I love you, but I cannot do this. I cannot come and I cannot leave my family.'"

Less than 24 hours after the wedding, the marriage was annulled.

After a few weeks passed, Zainab contacted Wahid and told him her father had "completely changed," and the family were planning a trip to Niagara Falls.

Three weeks later, Zainab was dead.

Wahid said, even now, he still thinks of her as his wife.

In one of her last emails she wrote, "We had an amazing love story together."

The last time she wrote to him, she signed off as "best friends for life … this is one promise no one can make me break."