Canadian values in spotlight after "honor killings"

TORONTO Tue Jan 31, 2012 4:46am IST

Mohammad Shafia (front), his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya (middle) and their son Hamed arrive at the Frontenac County Courthouse in Kingston, Ontario January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Lars Hagberg

Mohammad Shafia (front), his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya (middle) and their son Hamed arrive at the Frontenac County Courthouse in Kingston, Ontario January 26, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Lars Hagberg

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TORONTO (Reuters) - The "honor killing" of three teenaged Canadian girls by members of their own family has prompted soul-searching in pro-immigration Canada, as it protects minority religious freedoms and upholds its liberal laws.

Muslim groups said their religion could not be blamed for the quadruple murder - an elder relative was also killed in the gruesome outburst of family violence.

All four were found drowned inside a submerged Nissan Sentra that had been pushed into a canal near the eastern Ontario city of Kingston.

Government ministers were quick to condemn the killings, which the prosecution said took place after the three teenagers sought a more liberal lifestyle than the one forced on them by their overbearing Afghan Canadian father.

"Honour motivated violence is NOT culture, it is barbaric violence against women. Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture," Rona Ambrose, the government's minister in charge of women's rights, wrote on Twitter soon after the Sunday verdicts against the Montreal couple and their eldest son.

A Kingston jury found husband and wife Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son Hamed Mohammad Shafia guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. They face life in prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years.

The victims were three of Hamed's younger sisters and Mohammad Shafia's first wife in a polygamous marriage.

The case struck a chord in Canada, where growing immigration has led to clashes between Canadian values and the more restrictive traditions of immigrants like the Shafia family. Some Quebec communities recently made headlines by banning headscarves, matching curbs in parts of Europe.

"We're going to have more immigration in the future, but it does speak to appropriate integration and support of immigrants communities," said Nicholas Bala, a family law expert at Queen's University in Kingston.

"They have, on the one side, freedom of religion and we want them to preserve their culture, but also to recognize the importance of Canadian values and culture as well."

Canada accepted some 280,000 new permanent residents in 2010, according to the federal government.

The Shafia family, wealthy and seemingly well-connected in the Montreal business community, immigrated in 2007.

The girls, aged 13, 17 and 19 when they died, had reached out to the police, social services and their teachers for help with an abusive family. But Quebec's child welfare agency determined there was not enough evidence to warrant a court intervention.

Not long after the file was closed, the four bodies were found in the submerged car. The three defendants said it was an accident, but were convicted on forensic and wiretap evidence, and partially on circumstantial evidence that included their Google searches of "how to commit murder".

Saleha Khan, a representative of the Muslim Resource Centre for Support and Integration in London, Ontario, blamed a lack of communication between police, social workers and cultural associations for not responding to the abuse of the teenagers before it was too late.

Khan also noted that the officers and social workers dealing with the affluent family - which owned a strip mall in Laval, Quebec - may have been thrown off by the western clothing, make-up and jewellery that the Shafia daughters wore.

"You look at that and you don't see the stereotypical 'abused and oppressed, suppressed' Muslim woman wearing the scarf," Khan said. "We as service providers do also fall victim to our own stereotypes."

The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women and girls are murdered each year in so-called honor killings, supposedly to purify a family disgraced by the woman's conduct, and this was the motive put forward by the prosecution in the Shafia trial.

"So-called honor killings are barbaric and unacceptable and have no place in Canada," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the House of Commons on Monday.

"We send the message loudly and clearly: if you commit such terrible acts of violence in Canada, you will face Canadian justice."

Adeena Niazi, the executive director of the Afghan Women's Organization in Toronto said the killings were domestic violence, and not motivated by religion, culture or an unwillingness to adapt to Canadian values.

"What would happen if the family was not Afghan? What happens if a person from mainstream kills his girlfriend or wife? Is it a cultural issue? Of course not," she said, describing the Afghan community in Canada as outraged by the quadruple killings.

"Killing is not allowed in the Islamic faith, it is actually denounced," Niazi said. "Nobody has the right in our religion to take another's life."

(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman and Rob Wilson)

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