Monday, February 15, 2010

Murder and NT

A terrible murder trial is just getting underway in Canada. It’s particularly shocking because the victims were three teenage girls and an older woman and the murder was allegedly an honour killing. They were all members of a family that's originally from Afghanistan and came to Canada about three years ago. They were found drowned in a car that had been driven at night into a canal near the town of Kingston, Ontario, which is where the trial will therefore take place. The photo shows flowers placed at the site. Kingston is a quiet town on the St. Lawrence river, home to Queen’s University and the Royal Military College, but also to seven (!) penitentiaries.

The accused are the father of the girls, Mohammed Shafia, aged 56, his wife, aged 39, and their eldest son, aged 18. They’re charged with murder and with conspiracy to murder.

The incident occurred in June of last year. What's taking place now is not yet the full trial but the preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, a judge has to determine whether the prosecution has enough evidence to justify holding the trial; and even if the Kingston judge determines that it should go ahead, it’s not expected to take place before the summer. The prosecution and police say things are going slowly because of the complexity of the case. Part of the complexity is undoubtedly language.

The son speaks fluent English, but the two parents are “not proficient” in either English or French, though they have been living in Montreal. Some people have been asking how the latter could have lived for two years in Montreal without learning one of its languages, and especially the father, who owned the car; but I think they fail to understand that someone may be able to get along in a language for everyday purposes yet still not be capable of following court proceedings in it. In everyday transactions, they had NT help from a neighbour:
A day-care worker at the school that some of the Shafia children attended, [Joyce] Gilbert helped the family overcome language barriers. The family spoke mainly Farsi when they moved into the Montreal home. The children studied in French and Gilbert said they “learned very fast.”
“All the papers they got in French, so I was translating for them, even with the landlord,” said Gilbert.
NT also intervened at other points in what transpired as the police concluded it had not been an accident, which is what the father claims. The older woman in the car was Rona Shafia, the first wife of Muhammed Shafia; whereas the woman co-accused is his second wife.
Rona's younger sister, Homa Kahoush, interviewed through an interpreter by telephone from her home in Sweden, said she was shocked by what had happened. Speaking in Persian translated by her son Nawed Amir Mohammed, Kahoush said her sister had been married to Shafia in Kabul in 1980.
The first contact between Mohammed Shafia and the police was when he went himself to the Kingston police to report that the car and his daughters were missing:
When the father reported the disappearance, he was accompanied by Yahiya [his second wife] and their oldest son, Hamed, who acted mostly as an interpreter.
Thus we see two little-mentioned applications of Language Brokering: communication with law enforcement agents (in Kingston) and with the press (in Sweden), both of them before Professional Interpreters came on the scene. The former application is especially delicate, because of the principle that “anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence against you.”

To be continued.

Sue Yanagisawa. Canal death parents barred from kids. The Ottawa Sun, August 19, 2009.

Paul Schliesmann. Sister draws disturbing picture of canal deaths. CN News, August 1, 2009.

Tofyi. Parents, son charged with murder in Islamic honour killing case near Kingston. Toronto the Violent, July 23, 2009. (Actually it remains to be proved that it was an honour killing, despite the allegations.)

Photo: Sunny Freeman, The Canadian Press


  1. There's one significant error in this piece:

    You say they were "found drowned."

    Police have never revealed the cause of death. Post mortem reports have never discussed publicly. We don't know that they drowned and this will be a significant issue for trial.

    I've been covering this case since the four females were found dead June 30, 2009


  2. Thank you for the correction Rob. I've been following your coverage. Yes, we have to be very careful until the evidence is revealed, and I'm disturbed so many of the media and even the police relay the hearsay that it was an honour killing.

    More comments in my next post.