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Death threats overheard weeks before canal deaths, relative of dead wife testifies

Rona Amir Mohammed and Sahar Shafia in a photo recovered from Sahar's cellphone.

A few weeks before three teenaged sisters and their father's first wife were found drowned in a Rideau Canal lock just east of Kingston, the father was overheard threatening to kill two of the four, a murder trial was told Monday.

But first the father, Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, had to travel to Dubai, make sure the family's passports were in order and dispose of some property he owned in Quebec, the jury heard.

Then, "I will come and kill Zainab," he allegedly said, referring to his oldest daughter, who had enraged him by dating a young Pakistani-Canadian man. The trial has been told she had fled to a Montreal women's shelter after being badly beaten at home by her father and brother, Hamed, and that her departure had thrown the household into turmoil.

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The other person Mr. Shafia planned to murder was Rona Amir Mohammad, his first wife, the jury heard.

The testimony came from a female relative of Ms. Mohammad, whose unhappy diary has been entered as a court exhibit, and was translated from Dari, a language similar to Farsi.

But in telephone conversations recounted by the relative, whose identity is under a temporary publication ban, she told Rona (as she's referred to in the trial) not to worry. "I said to her, 'Don't be afraid, this is not Afghanistan, this is Canada, nothing will happen.'"

Earlier Monday, Mr. Shafia, 58, and his son Hamed, 20, both charged with four counts of first-degree murder, appeared to weep as the jury was shown graphic autopsy photos of three of the victims, including close-ups of head injuries.

The third defendant, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, Mr. Shafia's second wife and the mother of the three teens, asked to be absent from the court as the pictures were displayed. Presiding Judge Robert Maranger also acceded to a request from lead prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis that because the images were so disturbing, they not be released as exhibits.

All four victims died as a result of drowning, Ottawa-based pathologist Christopher Milroy told the trial, adding that toxicology tests found no drugs, alcohol or any other substances that might have contributed to their demise.

The bodies of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13 respectively, and Ms. Mohammad, 52, were found June 30, 2009, in a car at the bottom of the waterway lock as the 10-member family was returning to their Montreal home from a short holiday in Niagara Falls, travelling in two cars.

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Kingston detectives swiftly suspected the three accused had clumsily orchestrated a fake accident and that the submerged Nissan Sentra had been pushed into the water by the family's second car, a Lexus.

Exactly where and when the drownings occurred has never been established. "The pathology is neutral, I can't say it happened, I can't say it didn't happen," Dr. Milroy told Mr. Laarhuis, in response to a question whether the victims might have been killed first and then placed in the Nissan, which is the core theory of the police and prosecution.

And while he stressed that no drugs were found in any of the bodies, and that the four people all appeared to have been healthy before they perished, Dr. Milroy was also careful to explain that there is no all-encompassing toxicology test in which the presence of all drugs can be detected.

Rather, traces of specific substances have to be sought, and the Liverpool-born pathologist, who has conducted several thousand autopsies (only one of which involved a drowning murder), listed more than a dozen of the substances for which the four were screened, from alcohol and street drugs to anti-freeze and carbon monoxide. All came up blank.

All four drowning victims manifested two of the most common signs found in drowned people, he said – expanded lungs and froth in the breathing airway. Only Sahar's head did not display the black-and-red bruises seen on the other three when the skin was peeled back from their skulls, he said.

Prosecutors allege the deaths were a multiple so-called "honour killing," committed in a bid to restore the family's "honour," stained by the rebellious, independent-minded conduct of the three Shafia sisters, in particular the dating habits of the oldest two.

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Ms. Mohammad joined the rest of the family four months after they immigrated to Canada in June, 2007, ostensibly as Mr. Shafia's cousin, and was murdered as the final act of a long rivalry between the two wives, prosecutors contend.

In other evidence Monday, the jury also heard that the depth of the water in the lock was a little more than two metres that day, and that when the Nissan was spotted the driver's side window was open and none of the four dead women were in seatbelts.

It was through that window that the bodies were brought to the surface, one by one, the jury heard.

The trial resumes Tuesday.

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About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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