Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to Macleans.ca and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial, which is expected to run into December.
Hamed Shafia wants to look at the photographs of his dead sisters, their drowned bodies freshly extracted from an underwater car. Sgt. Michael Boyles tries to convince him otherwise, but Hamed is nothing if not determined. He wants to see the corpses. “Please,” he says quietly.
“Alright,” Boyles answers.
It is July 23, 2009, almost 3 o’clock in the morning, and the 18-year-old Afghan immigrant is sitting in a police interrogation room in Kingston, Ont.. A video camera is rolling. He has just been arrested—along with his beloved mom and dad—for the alleged “honour killing” of four family members: three sisters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; Geeti, 13) and his father’s first wife in the polygamous clan, Rona Amir Mohammad. The doomed foursome was found, nearly a month earlier, at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, the victims of what investigators say was a mass execution meant to look like a freak car accident.
For three hours, officers presented Hamed with clue after damning clue, including their smoking gun: shattered pieces of a Lexus headlight found at the midnight crime scene. (The victims were discovered in a submerged Nissan Sentra, but prosecutors allege that the family’s other car, a silver Lexus SUV, was used to ram the sedan over the edge of the Kingston Mills locks.) As Hamed flips through the full-page photos, his eyes fixated on the departed, Boyles urges him to finally come clean. “They deserve to know the truth,” he says. “They deserve better than this.”
“I seriously don’t know,” Hamed says, repeating his token response, but never lifting his head.
“Well, you have to explain it to me,” Boyles says.
But Hamed has his own question. There are only three photos here. Where is Geeti, the youngest of the girls?
“Hamed, look at me,” the sergeant says, swiping away the pictures. “Your father shouldn’t have got you involved in this, or your mother. But he did. You need to tell the truth. You need to give them peace and let the world know what happened.” Hamed, who has barely slept over the past 48 hours, stares at the floor. “You’re doing them an injustice,” Boyles continues. “Not only are they looking like this, being brought out of the water, now you’re going to sit here and dishonour them and lie and protect your father.”
“I’m not protecting anyone,” he insists. “It’s the truth.”
“It’s not the truth.”
Again, Hamed reaches for the photos, but this time Boyles refuses to hand them over. “Why should you get to look at them if you can’t look at me and tell the truth?” he asks. “Why would they want you to see them like this? You can’t even tell the truth of how they ended up like that.”
But the answer Boyles is searching for never comes. During the four-hour interrogation, broadcast for a jury on Tuesday, Hamed Shafia sticks to the same suspicious story he has been telling police since day one: the family went on a trip to Niagara Falls, stopped at a Kingston motel for the night on the way home to Montreal, and the next morning, the girls were gone. No matter how much incriminating evidence the cops provide—or how increasingly ridiculous his answers sound—Hamed doesn’t budge. In the rare moments when he does show emotion, he is talking about his “depressed” mother, not the three daughters she allegedly helped kill.
Prosecutors contend that 58-year-old Mohammad Shafia—a multimillionaire businessman who was raised in Afghanistan but made his fortune in Dubai before moving to Canada in 2007—decided his daughters should die because they shamed the family’s good Muslim name by shunning the hijab and dating boys. (On Monday, the jury heard Shafia’s enraged voice on police wiretaps, railing against his “treacherous” daughters and urging the devil to “sh– on their graves.”) Hamed, prosecutors say, was the obedient, curly-haired son who staked out potential crime scenes and tried, ever so clumsily, to cover up their tracks, while Tooba Yahya, wife number two, was an equally willing accomplice who helped lure the girls to their grave. All three have pleaded not guilty.
Det. Steve Koopman is the first to question Hamed, dressed in green cargo pants and a black shirt. The two developed a somewhat friendly relationship over the previous three weeks, and investigators hope that Koopman can cajole a gentle confession. In one classic exchange, the detective goes so far as to commend Hamed for the manner in which the girls perished. “I’ve heard that drowning is one of the more peaceful ways to go,” he says. But Koopman doesn’t mince words, either, telling his target that “there’s absolutely no doubt” who committed this crime. “It’s not a question of: did it happen?” he says. “We know what happened. It’s a question of why it happened.”
Koopman suggests—repeatedly—that Hamed’s dad was the mastermind, and that the other two had little choice but to follow his command. “Was it a train going down the tracks?” he asks. “Is it something that you couldn’t stop and is it because your dad had made up his mind?” When Hamed, now 20, refuses to implicate his father, Koopman shifts his focus to the shards of headlight scattered at the locks. Hamed’s explanation fluctuates between “I don’t know” and maybe somebody planted the evidence there. “You need to understand how serious this is,” Koopman says, growing more impatient as the interview drags on. “The fact that you’re thinking this, in essence, is still a game is pretty scary.”
“You are now doing the worst dishonour out of everyone because you know what?” Koopman continues. “You didn’t want this to happen. If you could take it back, you would. I don’t know if I can say so much about that with your dad. But I know that you would not want that to happen again, and if that if you could go back to that day, you would do something to change it.”
After 2½ hours, Koopman’s tender approach proves fruitless. His replacement in the room, Sgt. Boyles, shakes Hamed’s hand, pulls up a chair, and leans in close. “I’m telling you you killed your three sisters, you understand that?” he says, skipping the small talk. “There’s millions of people in this province. Everything’s pointing to you, your father and your mother.”
In fact, Boyles tells Hamed that in a nearby interrogation room, his mom has just admitted that all three were at the locks the night the Nissan splashed into the water. “I think you have honour, and I think you have the ability to tell the truth to us,” Boyles says. “I don’t think you’re a bad person. Hamed, look at me. I think mistakes were made. You guys came up with a plan and it went bad. You made a lot of mistakes and now you’re caught.”
Like Koopman, he wants the answer to only one question: Why? Why did those four women have to die? “I’m not from your culture,” says Boyles, a tall, stocky blond who easily outweighs Hamed by 100 pounds. “Certain things offend me and certain things are different in my culture than yours, I understand that. What I don’t understand is how does it go this far? What causes this to happen?”
“It’s nothing,” Hamed mumbles.
“Oh, it’s not nothing, Hamed. Three young girls were murdered. Not to leave out Rona, but three of your sisters were murdered. It’s not nothing. It’s very serious.”
“It is very serious,” Hamed agrees. “But I don’t know nothing to help you.”
A few minutes later, Hamed asks—yet again—to view the photos of the dead. “Just for a second,” he says. Boyles refuses.
“I don’t think that everyone that goes to jail is bad,” the sergeant says. “In my opinion, you’re a victim of circumstance, to some degree. I’m not trying to disrespect your father, but your father is a certain type of man. He’s very traditional, from what I understand, and he has certain rules and certain values and he expects certain things from people. And I think he expected certain things from some of your sisters, and I think that wasn’t happening and he dealt with it the wrong way. He dealt with it as a traditionalist, how his culture, how his upbringing has taught him to do. And he’s raised you like that. I’m not going to sit here and tell you your culture’s wrong or our traditions wrong. What I’m here to tell you is what you did in Canada is illegal, and now you have to own up to it. You have to tell us the truth.”
Hamed mumbles something that isn’t audible on the tape.
“You guys aren’t mastermind criminals,” Boyles continues. “You guys aren’t hit men. You guys don’t know how to cover your tracks properly. You don’t know how to get away with things.”
As the clock approaches 3:30 a.m., Hamed asks to go back to his jail cell. “I’m getting a bit of a headache,” he says. “I just want to go.” But before leaving, Boyles pulls out a laptop and plays a short clip from his mom’s interrogation. Beside the computer are the corpse shots that have so transfixed him over the past few hours.
“She saw these pictures?” Hamed asks, referring to his mother.
“Oh yeah,” Boyles says. “She saw them.”
In the clip, a tearful Tooba Yahya, now 41, admits that all three accused were at the fatal scene in the early morning hours of June 30, 2009, but that she fainted after the car plunged into the canal and doesn’t remember anything else. Hamed glares at the screen, showing no reaction as her words fill the room.
“Is your mother lying to us?” Boyles asks. “That’s all I’m asking. I mean, if you’re telling me the truth, Hamed, then your mother must be lying. You know what I like about you? You can’t say that because you respect your mother and you love her, and you know she’s telling the truth. You’re not going to sit here in front of the camera, and me, and call her a liar when you know she’s telling the truth. And I respect that. That’s an honourly, manly thing to do.”
Hamed stands up. “Can I go now?”
The trial, now in a two-day recess, is scheduled to continue Friday morning.