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Shafia's curses shouldn't be taken literally, defence witness tells court

Mohammad Shafia leaves the holding cell at the Frontenac county courthouse in Kingston, Ontario January 18, 2012.


Cursing is not unusual among Dari-speakers and epithets should be not be taken at face value, the murder trial of three Afghan-Canadians was told Wednesday, as the last piece of evidence was aired.

In the witness box was Afghan culture expert Nabi Misdaq, a retired Kabul-born lecturer and author, fluent in Pashto and Dari (Afghanistan's two official languages) and well-versed in explaining his homeland to Westerners, including the military and members of the diplomatic corps.

Mr. Misdaq was the final defence witness in the three-month trial of Mohammad Shafia, 59, Mr. Shafia's second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42, and their eldest son, Hamed, 21.

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Closing arguments are to be heard Monday and Tuesday.

Then will follow Superior Court judge Mr. Justice Robert Maranger's address to the seven-woman, five-man jury, which has had to digest copious quantities of evidence, encompassing 58 witnesses – 50 for the prosecution, eight for the defence – and 162 exhibits.

Mr. Shafia and Ms. Yahya both testified at length – unusual in a murder trial – but their son Hamed did not, and his lawyer Patrick McCann presented no other evidence.

Each defendant is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of three of Mr. Shafia's daughters and his first wife, and among the most powerful components of the prosecution case is a series of damning conversations captured on police wiretaps in the run-up to the arrests.

Repeatedly Mr. Shafia is overheard referring to his dead daughters as "filthy" and "whores," and in one memorable exchange he tells his co-accused: "Even if they come back to life a hundred times, if I have a cleaver in my hand, I will cut (them) in pieces."

On Tuesday, the jurors heard from Mr. Shafia's half-brother, physician Anwar Yaqubi, who told them that the "cleaver" expression is commonplace among people who are upset, and perhaps particularly so in the case of Mr. Shafia, who began his working life at age 6 in a Kabul butcher's shop.

Mr. Misdaq, 67, echoed that view Wednesday.

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The defendants do not deny the incriminating remarks were made.

They insist, however, that it was only after the deaths that they learned of their daughters' independent-minded, supposedly immoral conduct, most notably their interest in boyfriends, which the prosecution contends was the rationale for committing what it has dubbed "honour killings."

"Expletives in Dari are very common," Mr. Misdaq told the trial, and are often uttered by Afghan men when they are angry, disappointed or both. And Mr. Shafia's use of swear words, he said, does not mean he was speaking literally.

When he described his daughters as "whores," for instance, he was probably not saying they were prostitutes. In English, the term "bitch" might be closer to conveying what he meant, Mr. Misdaq said.

Another wiretapped remark the prosecution has dwelt on at some length is Mr. Shafia saying of the victims: "May the Devil shit on their graves." The equivalent in English might be "To hell with them," or "To hell with it," Mr. Misdaq testified.

On June 30, 2009, the drowned bodies of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, were found in a car submerged in a Rideau Canal lock, just east of the city.

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Also in the vehicle was Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who helped raise the seven children in a clandestine polygamous marriage. The family had immigrated to Canada two years earlier.

The defendants insist a strange accident somehow took place, but from the outset detectives suspected murder.

The accused say the car ended up in the lock after Zainab and the other three borrowed it for a late-night spin, as the family stayed at a Kingston motel while heading home to Montreal from a short holiday in Niagara Falls.

The prosecution, however, contends that in a badly botched murder plot, the car was pushed into the lock by the second vehicle in which the 10-member family was travelling, and that the deaths were so-called "honour killings" whose purpose was to cleanse the Shafia family of the disgrace brought upon it by the daughters, especially the oldest two.

The courtroom has been filled almost to capacity each day, mostly with curious Kingston residents, and similar interest is anticipated when the trial resumes next week.

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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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