'It was obvious he was suffering from something,' MUN professor says of accused attempted murderer
With the alleged victim yet to testify and give details, the lines of questioning from lawyers in the attempted murder trial of a MUN student took a puzzling turn Wednesday.
One side focused on a series of text messages between the student and his brother, translated from Farsi to English, in which he said he wanted to stab the complainant and himself.
The other side focused on the testimony of an assistant professor in Memorial University's engineering department, his close involvement in the lives of the doctoral students he was supervising, and his alleged connections with the Iranian government.
"I'm talking about the very practical pressure that people who are not Canadian citizens can feel in these very close relationships, when they are citizens of an authoritative state," defence lawyer Mark Gruchy told Justice Vikas Khladkhar. "The very thing that is central to this case can get them hung from an automotive crane."
That issue appears to be the nature of the relationship between the accused and the complainant, both international students living in St. John's in April 2017. The two men, both natives of Iran, were working together on a project for their PhDs at the time, the court heard, and had moved in together temporarily once the family of the complainant had left after a visit.
A publication ban implemented at the start of the trial prevents media from reporting the names of the two men.
The court heard the pair was walking on Signal Hill near Ladies' Lookout when the accused reportedly wrapped the complainant in a bear hug and attempted to throw them both over the side of a cliff. At the time, the RNC issued a media release saying the two men had fallen only a few feet and the complainant had suffered minor injuries.
The complainant spoke to police the night of the incident, saying his friend had come quickly toward him. Later, while making extensive clarifications to his police statement, the complainant said he believed his friend had not wanted to kill him, but had wanted him to be there when he took his own life and "went to the other world." The complainant spoke of having kissed the accused after they had fallen down the cliff, telling police he had done it in an effort to keep the accused calm and unsuspicious, the court heard.
Gruchy questioned a MUN assistant professor about his knowledge of the two men's relationship.
"Do you remember if police asked you if there was anything homosexual going on between (the accused and the complainant)?" Gruchy asked.
"No, both of them are really faithful guys," the professor replied.
When asked to explain, the professor said he knew the two men to be devout Muslims, and homosexuality is considered a sin in the Muslim faith. Because he knew the two men to have prayed and otherwise followed the rules of Islam, the chance of them being in a homosexual relationship was "very unlikely," the professor said.
Gruchy questioned the professor on his previous employment with an oil company tied to the Iranian government, until Khladkhar said he was shutting down that line of questioning.
Gruchy also questioned the professor on his involvement in the students' lives.
"I can't call it friends. I'm their supervisor and they are students," the professor said. "We have a very friendly relationship."
The professor acknowledged there have been times when his students, along with other people, have come to his house for religious ceremonies. He acknowledged he had been the complainant's first contact after the alleged attempted murder, and he had gone to RNC headquarters that night while the complainant was giving his statement.
The professor told the court he believed the accused and the complainant to have had a positive friendship, with the accused often speaking of how much the complainant had helped him with his studies during a challenging time in the semester.
"He was taking things so seriously. For me it was obvious that he was suffering from something." — MUN assistant professor
At one point, the accused was persuaded to take a leave of absence from his studies due to concerns with his mental health.
"He was taking things so seriously. For me it was obvious that he was suffering from something," the professor said, responding to questions from prosecutor Jude Hall.
The student told his supervisor he had sought medical advice and had been prescribed medications, which he was taking. The professor said the accused was upset with the idea that his leave of absence had been recorded as being due to mental issues, telling him he'd rather throw himself off one of the university buildings and have the reason recorded as broken bones instead.
Earlier Wednesday, Hall called linguist Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, to the stand, to testify about a series of text messages between the accused and his brother in the days before the alleged murder attempt. The texts were written in Farsi, the language of Iran, and Shabani-Jadidi had been asked by the RNC to translate them into English.
The conversation appears to have taken place while the accused was in St. John's and his brother in Iran, preparing to come to St. John's for a visit and attempting to soothe his sibling in the meantime.
"It's not a reputation, brother. God willing, you will get well and return," a text from the accused's brother reads, according to Shabani-Jadid's translation.
"I want to stab myself and (the complainant)," the accused replied.
"I'm thinking about killing (the complainant) and myself," reads another text from the accused.
"Don't come, brother," he writes at another point. "They insulted me. If I had a gun, I would shoot them all."
"Stop talking nonsense," the accused's brother replies, urging the accused to relax and hold on a few more days until he arrives.
The linguist acknowledged that some of the wording or nuances in the texts could be interpreted differently. Others were very clear and had no way to be misinterpreted, she said.
The trial continues today.