Detroit – A federal magistrate Wednesday ordered a Farmington Hills doctor and his wife jailed without bond pending trial, saying they are a danger to girls victimized in the country’s first female genital mutilation case.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford made the ruling after a two-hour hearing that featured defense attacks on the government’s evidence and provided new details on a case drawing international attention about a secretive, illegal procedure practiced by a small sect of Shia Muslims from India.
Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida Attar, did not react to the magistrate’s order, which deemed the couple a flight risk. They are accused of committing female genital mutilation, trying to cover up the crime and conspiring with Northville Dr. Jumana Nagarwala to cut girls as part of a procedure practiced by their religious and cultural community, the Dawoodi Bohra.
“My overriding concern is the evidence of ... (a) cover up as the government is reaching out to parents of young girls, and evidence that suggests the defendants tried to actively discourage them from coming forward,” Stafford said.
The order comes as federal prosecutors and agents from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations hunt for more victims of female genital mutilation and await medical tests on other girls. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward has referenced three victims from Michigan and at least one more girl who allegedly underwent the procedure.
Woodward said there are countless numbers of victims. But as of Wednesday, the Attars and Nagarwala are only charged with mutilating the genitalia of two girls during a 12-year alleged conspiracy.
“They are the last in a long line of victims,” Woodward told the magistrate.
The hearing also revealed that Fakhruddin Attar is being evicted from his Livonia clinic where the mutilations allegedly happened.
The hearing framed legal arguments for the government and lawyers representing the Farmington Hills couple. The government has video surveillance, text messages, recorded phone calls, medical reports and witness testimony alleging girls were mutilated, while defense lawyers called the surgeries a misunderstood but benign religious procedure.
Fakhruddin Attar, 52, and his 50-year-old wife — both dressed in jail uniforms and wearing handcuffs and ankle chains — sat together during the hearing, flanked by several supporters seated in the courtroom gallery.
A trial is tentatively set for June 27. The doctors face up to life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
The hearing came one week after the Attars and Nagarwala were indicted in a case that is being followed closely in India, where the Dawoodi Bohra are based, and by human rights groups opposed to female genital mutilation, a federal crime since 1996.
Nagarwala, who has been fired from her job as an emergency room physician at Henry Ford Health System and who is also jailed without bond, has denied performing female genital mutilation. She merely removed mucous membrane from the girls’ genitalia, placed the material on gauze pads and gave it to their families for burial, defense lawyer Shannon Smith said in court.
Fakhruddin Attar was not aware of any crimes committed at his clinic, his lawyer said.
Nagarwala is accused of performing the procedure at Fakhruddin Attar’s clinic in Livonia and his wife is accused of helping Nagarwala perform the mutilations, according to court records. Farida Attar manages the clinic.
The two doctors and Attar’s wife are members of the Dawoodi Bohra religious community based locally out of the Anjuman-e-Najmi mosque on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. It’s the only Dawoodi Bohra mosque in Michigan.
The Dawoodi Bohras hail mostly from western India and were traditionally comprised of businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals. There are about 1 million followers worldwide.
Sect members were linked to a mutilation scandal in Australia two years ago.
Three Dawoodi Bohras faced trial in Australia in a case that raised awareness of female genital mutilation. The case ended in prison sentences for the three, including a Dawoodi Bohra community leader.
There have been conflicting messages from the Dawoodi Bohra community regarding female genital mutilation. The community’s leader in India endorsed female genital mutilation in April 2016, according to Sahiyo, a nonprofit group that is trying to end a practice that is legal in India.
But a month later, leaders at the Farmington Hills mosque ordered its members to follow state and federal laws and not engage in female genital mutilation.
On Wednesday, the government suggested the May 2016 edict was a smokescreen providing cover for members to continue mutilating girls.
Woodward, the prosecutor, pointed to a 2016 text message sent by Fakhruddin Attar to leaders of the Farmington Hills mosque and Nagarwala. The text explained how to justify the mutilations and claimed the procedure was harmless, Woodward said.
Lawyers for the Attars attacked some of the government’s evidence, especially dark and blurry FBI surveillance footage from outside the Livonia clinic.
The footage, revealed in The Detroit News Wednesday morning, came from a camera the FBI installed atop a utility pole outside the clinic.
The camera was installed Jan. 25, nine days before two 7-year-old Minnesota girls were brought to the clinic for the procedure.
The footage shows the Attars, Nagarwala and the victims at the clinic Feb. 3, the government claims.
The Attars’ lawyers said the poor quality of the FBI surveillance video prevents identifying anyone.
Instead, the video shows “blurry figures and blurry blobs,” said attorney Mary Chartier, who represents Fakhruddin Attar.
“I can’t make out a single individual,” said attorney Matthew Newburg, who is defending Farida Attar.
Stafford, the magistrate, agreed.
“The photos are very hard to decipher,” Stafford said. “I can’t tell anything.”
Chartier, meanwhile, produced receipts showing Fakhruddin Attar was not at the clinic the night the girls allegedly were mutilated. He was miles away at a store with his daughter, who wanted to buy a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book, she said.
But the government countered that Fakhruddin Attar facilitated the mutilations by letting Nagarwala use his clinic.
“Without him, this procedure did not happen,” Woodward said.
According to court records, Fakhruddin Attar let Nagarwala use his clinic to treat girls for genital issues five to six times a year, for free and usually on Friday evenings or Saturdays when the clinic was closed.
“There is not one piece of evidence that Dr. Attar ever touched a child,” Chartier said.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the Attars appeared to adopt Nagarwala’s defense, saying the operation was a religious procedure, not mutilation.
But during an April 10 interview with investigators before his arrest, Fakhruddin Attar never mentioned a religious procedure, according to the government.
The procedure is a closely guarded secret, Farida Attar’s lawyer said.
“Not because it is illegal,” Newburg said, “but because it is a religious practice.”