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Shelter workers, police give dramatic testimony about Shafia family

Mohammad Shafia and Hamed Shafia step out from the police van at the Frontenac county courthouse in Kingston, Ont., on Monday Nov. 21, 2011.

Lars Hagberg/Lars Hagberg/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Two months before she and three relatives were allegedly killed by her father, mother and brother, a Montreal teenager fled her home for a women's shelter where she described a pattern of domestic abuse, a murder trial was told Tuesday.

"She spoke of psychological and physical violence, chiefly by her brother, and said she was afraid of him," counsellor Jennifer Bumbray told the court, where Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their 20-year-old son, Hamed, each stand charged with four counts of first-degree murder.

A second counsellor at the Passages shelter, where 19-year-old Zainab Shafia stayed for about two weeks in April and May, 2009, said the same. "Zainab said her brother could be verbally aggressive and violent," Rachel Laberge Malett told the trial.

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That was not the only sign of trouble in the Shafia household. On the same day Zainab ran away, April 17, Montreal police Constable Anne-Marie Choquette told the trial in an agreed statement of facts that she was called to the family home on Bonnivet Street, in the borough of St. Leonard. Standing on the street nearby were four Shafia adolescents, including two sisters who would later be found drowned in a Kingston-area lock along with Zainab, and all were evidently in distress.

"Their mother was reported to be afraid because the oldest daughter Zainab had left the house and they did not know where she was," Constable Choquette said in her statement. "The children were concerned about the reaction of the father to this information."

The bodies of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13 respectively, were discovered June 30, together with that of Mohammad Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, in a submerged car at the bottom of the lock. The family had been returning to Montreal after a short holiday in Niagara Falls, and the three accused told police a dreadful accident took place while the group was staying overnight at a Kingston motel.

Police swiftly suspected it was mass murder, however – a so-called "honour killing" committed chiefly in a bid to restore the family's "reputation," supposedly stained by the rebellious, independent-minded conduct of the three Shafia sisters, in particular the dating habits of the eldest two.

The three defendants have pleaded not guilty.

When Zainab showed up at the women's shelter, she had no money but she brought with her some expensive clothes and shoes. "She kind of stood out" compared to other residents, Ms. Bumbray told the jury. But in her intake interview, Zainab spoke not only of violence at home, but of being forced to leave school, of being sequestered in isolation from the rest of the household, and of staying in secret contact with her boyfriend via a clandestine cellphone.

Two weeks later, her mother Tooba persuaded her to return home.

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The four Shafia siblings Constable Choquette encountered that same evening also appeared to be in great need. One had a bruise on her face, all spoke of violence in the home, and two of the girls who would later die, Sahar and Geeti, expressly stated they wanted to be removed.

A child-care worker also arrived that evening. But midway through the visit, the children's father, Mohammad Shafia, came home and "the demeanour of the children changed," Constable Choquette said. "After his arrival, the children stopped talking." One of the girls then retracted her story.

When the visit ended late that night, Constable Choquette concluded there was ample evidence to lay charges, but that protocol calls for the Child and Family Services department to make the decision, and no action was taken.

Another police officer who specialized in child-abuse cases followed up on the investigation briefly and spoke to Geeti Shafir, who badly wanted to leave home. "She said she had no freedom, she wanted to be like her friends and do things without permission," Detective Laurianne Lefebvre told the trial.

But it was clear this was an unusual household. In particular, Det. Lefebvre noticed that Sahar, who was interviewed at school, not only seemed cheerful but wore stylish Western clothes and makeup, with no hijab – hardly the hallmark of a strict Islamic regimen. Sahar explained that whenever she arrived at school, and departed for home, she would change her clothes.

In earlier testimony Tuesday, the court also heard from Zainab's former boyfriend, Ammar Wahid, who was very briefly her husband.

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The pair married in a mosque after she left the women's shelter, but the union was dissolved the next day, under pressure from the Shafia parents and Hamed, who during his father's frequent business trips abroad took on the role of man of the house, even though he was younger than Zainab.

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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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