Shafias retain control over fortune after murder convictions

In the weeks before he helped kill his sisters and his father’s first wife, someone had used Hamed Shafia’s laptop for an online search.

OTTAWA — In the weeks before he helped kill his sisters and his father’s first wife, someone had used Hamed Shafia’s laptop for an online search.

That person wanted to know: “can a prisoner have control over their real estate?”

Now Hamed, his father Mohammad Shafia and his mother Tooba Yahya are prisoners themselves and they will discover the answer is yes.

The trio were convicted Sunday of first-degree murder for the deaths of sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, their father’s first wife in a polygamous marriage.

First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no chance to apply for parole for 25 years.

The family has been behind bars since their arrests on July 22, 2009.

Mohammad Shafia was a prosperous businessman, a jury heard over the course of the trial.

He began at a young age in Afghanistan, starting an electronics business with money from his grandfather.

After arriving in Montreal in 2007, he bought a strip mall worth over $1 million, with a cash down payment. That same year, he sold a house in Kabul for close to $1 million. He had an import business, bought and sold cars through an online auction and also frequently travelled for business to Dubai.

When she died, his first wife Rona had been travelling with jewelry appraised at roughly $23,000.

Shafia was also building a mansion in a Montreal suburb to house his sprawling family.

His prison quarters will be far tighter, but perhaps not his personal bank account.

Any assets Shafia had before his conviction remain in his hands, criminal lawyers say.

“If he owned the Taj Mahal prior to his conviction, he still does now,” said Tyler Smith, a lawyer with Hicks Adams LLP in Toronto. “The bottom line is any criminal conviction, even a life sentence, does not extinguish your property rights.”

While in prison, the Shafia family will have special inmate bank accounts with both a chequing and savings component, and with strict limits on how they can spend the money.

The challenge for them may be whether they can afford to keep up their home and other property without jobs.

“The problem is the family has to manage the logistics of their life from jail,” said Toronto criminal lawyer Joseph Neuberger.

Sometimes, people assign responsibility to other family members or lawyers, he said.

What becomes of the Shafia family fortune in the long-term is uncertain.

“He will die in prison,” said Smith. “He will likely not ever get that money himself.”

It’s uncommon for those sentenced to life in prison to have the same level of wealth as Shafia appears to possess.

For the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, the B.C. government placed a lien against his family’s pig farm in order to cover recoup the cost of his legal defence.

In Shafia’s case, his income would have been too high to receive any legal aid, said Smith.

Holding onto assets can also be a risk for those convicted of a crime.

Three lawsuits have been launched against convicted sex killer Russell Williams, once a rising star in the Canadian Forces, and his estranged wife.

In one suit, it is alleged Williams fraudulently transferred assets to his wife after he was criminally charged.

In her statement of defence in that matter, Williams’s wife denies there was any intention to defeat the claims of any creditors of her husband.

None of the allegations in the statements of claim have been proven in court.