Defining honour killings

TORONTO – The murder trial that found Afghanistan-born Montrealer Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya, and their son Hamed each guilty of four counts of first-degree murder has thrust the term ‘honour killing’ to the forefront of media coverage. But what does this term mean from a legal perspective?

Criminal defence lawyer Brian Greenspan explains the notion of honour killing establishes a context so the Crown’s narrative can be understood by the jury.

“You can’t come into the story with a car in the canal,” says Greenspan. “That’s not where the story starts, that’s where the story ended. So if you’re a prosecutor–or a defence lawyer–you want to tell a story.”

While much media coverage has shied away from labeling the case an honour crime, potentially for fear of accusations of religious bias, Greenspan believes the term is descriptive, but not pejorative.

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Greenspan admits there could be the potential for people to exhibit intolerance in terms of religious biases upon hearing the term ‘honour killing,’ but raises the point that many citizens have biases against other groups such as biker gangs.

“Just because today’s story was an honour killing story, I don’t see any distinction between an honour killing, revenge killing or gang warfare. All it is, is a context in which it’s alleged a homicide took place. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that,” he adds.

While the term may not be controversial in a court of law, there has been much speculation regarding the distinction between honour killings and domestic violence in the media. Tarek Fatah, Founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, says media shouldn’t be focusing on defining terms.

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“To suggest that the debate is whether it’s honour killing or domestic violence is a luxury that the four dead women don’t have,” says Fatah. “It allows everyone else to become lost in a maze of intellectual nonsense.”

Dr. Amin Muhammad, a professor of psychiatry at Memorial University of Newfoundland, is currently working on a report for the federal government about honour-based killings in Canada. Dr. Muhammad believes there is reason to distinguish the two terms.

“The difference in honour killing is that honour killing is planned, pre-meditated, deliberate and it involves a number of co-perpetrators who collude,” says Dr. Muhammad. He also believes the term ‘honour killing’ is more than just context for a murder.

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“It’s actually the mindset of the people. They would explain it in the court of law, that ‘we killed the victim because of this reason that they brought dishonor,’” explains Dr. Muhammad. “And if they will not avenge, then the other family members, tribesmen or community members would look down upon them and label them as cowards and label them as shameless, that they did not restore the honour back.”

Dr. Muhammad explains the term dates back to old medieval Arab tradition of burying daughters alive. It includes the notion that if a woman liaisons with any men outside the family, she would bring dishonour and the only way to restore honour would be to kill the girl and her partner. Dr. Muhammad cites honour crime cases involving Sikh families and Hindu families, and says the issue is not specific to the Muslim religion.

“There are more than 30 countries where this type of crime is very much prevalent. And people use this as a defence plea,” says Dr. Muhammad. “In countries where the legal system is corrupt, they would get away with minor punishments or sometimes total acquittal.”

Dr. Muhammad has studied more than a dozen recent honour crime cases in Canada. He feels the Shafia verdict is very justified and says it created a good impression about Canada’s legal system internationally, a pride reflected in statements by government officials.

“Cultural differences that may in fact be crimes will be prosecuted,” said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. “I’m very pleased that the jury was able to come to a conclusion and that Canadian law was applied I think in a very fair and even-handed manner and the law is upheld.”

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Dr. Muhammad hopes that Canadians will be more vigilant and watchful of honour crime after this high profile case.

“We have been very clear, so-called honour killings are barbaric and unacceptable and have no place in Canada,” adds Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. “We are committed to protecting women and other vulnerable persons from all forms of violence and to hold offenders accountable for their acts.”

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