The Toronto aunt of the brothers accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon attack says she needs to see far more proof of her nephews' involvement before she believes they were behind the deadly blasts.
"I do not believe these two boys have done that act of atrocity, killing those people on the streets," said Maret Tsarnaeva in the lobby of the Etobicoke apartment complex where she lives. "I will not believe that until I get evidence."
Law enforcement officials captured her 19-year-old nephew, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after a day-long manhunt that finished with a flurry of gunshots in Watertown, Mass. Dzhokhar was on the run after escaping an overnight shootout that killed his elder brother Tamerlan.
Ms. Tsarnaeva described a family steeped in hardship that stressed education as a way of overcoming the difficulties they encountered due to their Chechen background. "We've always been persecuted for being Chechen," said she said "That's why we say study, study, study. Some of us studied law to find some way of protecting ourselves."
They actively fled the warfare that began plaguing their ethnic homeland in 1994, she said.
"We never took any action in any conflict," said the aunt, currently preparing for exams that would allow her to practice law in Canada. "We never lived in Chechnya."
As one of four trained lawyers in the family, Ms. Tsarnaeva was responsible for the paperwork that brought much of her family to North America. First, in April of 2002, came Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with his father Anzor and mother Zubeida. They were followed a year later by Dzhokar's elder brother Tamerlan, their two sisters and an uncle, Ruslan, who also lives in Boston.
She maintained sporadic contact with her Boston-based relatives, last speaking to Tamerlan in Februrary, she said, while he was visiting family in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, neighbouring Chechnya.
"I asked him if he found a girl out there to marry," she said. "And he said 'Maret, I have a wife. I have a daughter.'"
She later realized that Tamerlan was married a woman from a Christian family and the couple had a three-year-old daughter, she said.
"So you can't tie it up to religion, either, because having the closest person in your house…and a daughter of that union, how can you hate this religion and be violent?"
Until recently, everyone in the family considered themselves Muslims, but none were devout enough to pray regularly.
About two years ago, Tamerlan began praying five times a day, she said. "I'd rather him praying than smoking or doing drugs or other terrible things."
She had received conflicting reports about Tamerlan's well-being of late. While her nephew's mother talked up educational achievements, his uncle Ruslan considered him an ongoing source of disappointment. He apparently made a living delivering pizza, working as a store clerk and doing other odd jobs, she said.
Their "soft-hearted" father now lives back in to Makhachkala due to his frustration with how spread out the family had become in North America. "He said to me 'I'm losing my family. They all seem to know everything, how to run a family, how to raise a family."
Ms. Tsnaraeva received a call from her sister in Kyrgyzstan soon after initial reports of the Boston explosions circled the world. The sister had already been in touch with Anzor, the father, who'd reported that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan were unharmed in the blasts.
"I don't know how [Anzor] is taking this," she said.