DETROIT – Detroit area physician Dr. Jumana Nagarwala may be the only physician on trial for allegedly performing female genital mutilation on minor girls in the U.S., but she wasn’t the only doctor who was cutting children, federal prosecutors disclosed Thursday.
Rather, they said, Nagarwala was part of a secret network of physicians in a tight-knit Indian community who were cutting 7-year-old girls across the country for years as part of a religious obligation and cultural tradition that had mothers and daughters traveling all over for the procedure.
In a courtroom hearing Thursday, the government disclosed for the first time publicly that female physicians in California and Illinois also were performing FGM procedures on minor girls who belonged to their small Indian Muslim sect, known as the Dawoodi Bohras. They also alleged that Nagarwala – the lead defendant in Detroit’s historic FGM case – traveled to the Washington D.C. area to perform FGM on as many as five minor girls there.
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As Department of Justice attorney Amy Markopoulos told a judge, these doctors “were in demand.”
“This was not a discreet, one time occasion … It was not arbitrary,” Markopoulos said of FGM practices, noting “travel is often necessary to perform the procedure.”
The prosecutor’s comments came during a hearing in which the defense sought to suppress evidence and have the 4-year-old case dismissed altogether. The defense argues that Nagarwala never harmed any child, but rather performed a benign procedure that involved only “scraping” – not cutting – of girls’ genitalia.
Nagarwala and her three co-defendants are all members of the Dawoodi Bohra, which has a mosque in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. The sect practices female circumcision and believes it is a religious rite of passage that involves only a minor “nick.”
Nagarwala is charged with performing FGM on nine minor girls from Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, including some who cried, screamed and bled during the procedure and one who was given Valium ground in liquid Tylenol to keep her calm, court records show. Prosecutors allege she performed these procedures after hours in a clinic in the Detroit suburb of Livonia that belonged to another doctor, who is also charged in the case, along with his wife.
Since the case emerged in 2017, the bulk of the charges have been dropped and the federal FGM law was declared unconstitutional in 2018. The case was set to go to trial in April 2019 on a single obstruction charge, but COVID-19 hit and the prosecution came to a halt.
This year, to the chagrin of the defense, prosecutors sought new charges.
In March, the government issued its fourth superseding – or new – indictment that includes five new charges, including conspiracy to make false statements and witness tampering. Prosecutors allege that Nagarwala and her three cohorts lied to the FBI about FGM that was going on in their community, and instructed others in their religious community to do the same if the FBI came asking questions.
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But the defense claims the new charges are about vengeance, citing the many blows the prosecution took in years past, specifically 2018, when a judge declared the federal FGM law unconstitutional and dismissed nearly all charges.
“The government is acting with extreme prosecutorial vindictiveness in issuing yet another superseding indictment nearly half a decade after charges were first issued,” the defense has argued in court filings, calling the latest indictment “retaliation for the defense successfully decimating the government’s case.”
“The government engaged in prosecutorial vindictiveness,” defense attorney Mary Chartier argued in court before U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman Wednesday, adding: “The defense has systematically dismantled the government’s case.”
Friedman, who declared the FGM ban unconstitutional and previously dismissed all but one count, said he would take the matter under advisement and issue an opinion at a later date as to whether he will dismiss the new indictment.
Prosecutors allege that nine girls – four from Michigan, two from Minnesota and three from Illinois – underwent FGM after-hours at a clinic at the hands of Nagarwala. Her co-defendants are: Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, the owner of the Livonia clinic where the FGM allegedly took place; his wife Farida Attar, who is accused of being in the room and holding the girls’ hands during the procedures; and Fatema Dahodwala, the mother of one of the alleged victims.
The prosecution took a major blow in 2018 when Friedman ruled that the federal law banning FGM was unconstitutional, concluding Congress lacked the power to regulate the act to begin with. Friedman dismissed the mutilation charges and removed four defendants from the case, which sparked outcry and triggered a new Michigan law banning FGM.
“Oh my God, this is crazy,” FGM survivor and social activist Mariya Taher said at the time of Friedman’s ruling. “Unfortunately, this is going to embolden those who believe that this must be continued … they’ll feel that this is permission, that it’s OK to do this.”
Taher, of Cambridge, Mass., who at 7 was subjected to the same type of religious cutting procedure that’s at issue in the Michigan case, said laws alone won’t end FGM, but are needed.
“This is a violation of one person’s human rights. It’s a form of gender violence,” Taher said. “This is cultural violence.”
Friedman’s ruling also dismissed charges against three mothers, including two Minnesota women whom prosecutors said tricked their 7-year-old daughters into thinking they were coming to metro Detroit for a girls’ weekend, but instead had their genitals cut at a clinic as part of a religious procedure.
Friedman concluded that “as despicable as this practice may be,” Congress did not have the authority to pass the 1996 federal law that criminalizes female genital mutilation, and that FGM is for the states to regulate.
The Department of Justice did not appeal Friedman’s ruling, though federal prosecutors in Michigan have sought to revive the case by attacking it form a different angle: charging the defendants with conspiracy to lie, hide what they did, and intimidate others into doing the same.
While the case involves nine minor girls, prosecutors have argued that Nagarwala subjected as many as 100 minor girls to FGM procedures over a decade, including one girl who screamed, “could barely walk after the procedure, and said that she felt pain all the way down to her ankle.” Another girl said that she was “pinched” in the genital area, that it “hurted a lot” and that there was “pain and burning.”
Both girls were told to keep the procedures a secret, prosecutors wrote in court records.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward has long argued that the defendants knew what they were doing was illegal, but did it anyway, and that Dr. Nargarwala “is aware that female genital mutilation has no medical purpose.”
FGM is banned worldwide and has been outlawed in more than 30 countries.
Currently, 27 states have laws that criminalize female genital mutilation, including Michigan, whose FGM law is stiffer than the federal statute, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, compared with five years under federal law. Michigan’s FGM law was passed in 2017 and applies to both doctors who conduct the procedure and parents who transport a child to have it done. The defendants in this case can’t be retroactively charged under the newer state law.
Contact Tresa Baldas: [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Feds: Female genital mutilation case involved secret physician network