Mosque leader took flight to India amid FBI probe
Detroit — A leader of the Muslim sect embroiled in an alleged female genital mutilation conspiracy boarded a one-way flight to India on April 10, the same day FBI agents raided a medical clinic where a doctor allegedly cut 7-year-old girls, The Detroit News has learned.
The flight is the latest development in a case that has led to criminal charges against one leader of the local Dawoodi Bohra community based out of a Farmington Hills mosque. Three members of the mosque have been charged in federal court with female genital mutilation and prosecutors say they belong to a religious and cultural community that practices the illegal procedure.
Two sources identified the leader as former mosque President Saifuddin Bhabrawala, whose three-year term ended before he flew from Detroit Metropolitan Airport on April 10, the day the genital mutilation scandal emerged publicly. He was detained by federal agents in conjunction with the female genital mutilation investigation and they searched his electronic devices before Bhabrawala flew to India, one source familiar with the man’s trip told The News.
It is unclear what, if anything, agents learned after searching his electronic devices, but it is possible they did not find evidence linking him to an alleged conspiracy, legal experts said.
“They must not have seen enough to taint the guy with the complaint,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Gabel, a partner with the Jones Day law firm in Detroit, who is not involved in the case. “If they let him go, they must not have had enough probable cause to make an arrest or take action to ensure he stays in the country.”
Bhabrawala has not been charged with a crime amid a continuing investigation.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment about Bhabrawala’s flight.
Leaders of the Anjuman-e-Najmi mosque in Farmington Hills also declined comment about Bhabrawala and the flight but released a statement last month saying they are offering assistance to investigators.
The mosque is part of the Dawoodi Bohra, a small Muslim sect based in India whose members practice the illegal mutilations, according to prosecutors.
“Any violation of U.S. law is counter to instructions to our community members,” the mosque’s statement said. “It does not reflect the everyday lives of the Dawoodi Bohras in America.”
Federal prosecutors say the alleged female genital mutilation conspiracy started in 2005 and ended last month. That time period overlapped with some of the period that Bhabrawala, 52, was president of the Farmington Hills mosque.
Mosque presidents typically serve three-year terms, sources familiar with the case said.
‘They are figureheads’
An April 26 indictment alleges Northville Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, Farmington Hills Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida Attar, performed the illegal surgery on two 7-year-old Minnesota girls brought to Metro Detroit.
The alleged acts happened Feb. 3 at Fakhruddin Attar’s clinic in Livonia and the government claims the trio tried to cover up the crimes by lying to federal agents and deleting evidence.
Fakhruddin Attar, 52, has served as treasurer and a director of the Farmington Hills mosque, according to the Anjuman-e-Najmi website.
Nagarwala’s husband, Moiz Nagarwala, is listed as a leader of the Farmington Hills mosque, according to the mosque’s website, and records list him as having served as joint treasurer.
As president, Bhabrawala was the second highest-ranking leader of the mosque.
Local mosque officials are in charge of following strict orders from Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the Dawoodi Bohra’s spiritual leader in India, said Isufali Kundawala, a Bohra and retired anesthesiologist near Dallas who has spoken out against female genital mutilation.
“They are figureheads,” Kundawala said. “Nobody can dissent or you’re excommunicated. People literally kiss letters that come from the Syedna.”
There have been conflicting messages from the Dawoodi Bohra community regarding female genital mutilation.
Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin 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.
The edict was signed by Bhabrawala, according to the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a human-rights group that wants mosque leaders to condemn female genital mutilation worldwide.
The local Dawoodi Bohra group did not respond to the request.
Bhabrawala flew to India on April 10, the same day agents raided Fakhruddin Attar’s clinic on Farmington Road, north of Five Mile in Livonia. During the search, investigators found a glove belonging to one of the Minnesota victims.
The victim identified Nagarwala as the doctor she met at the clinic, according to court records. Prosecutors, who say Nagarwala cut the girl, cited medical reports showing a small incision and tear on the girl’s genitalia.
Agents also questioned Nagarwala and Fakhruddin Attar on April 10.
When was flight planned?
Nagarwala has denied performing female genital mutilation. She merely removed mucous membrane from the girls’ clitoris, placed the material on gauze pads and gave it to their families for burial, defense lawyer Shannon Smith said in court.
“This is part of the culture,” Smith said.
The Dawoodi Bohras hail mostly from western India and were traditionally composed of businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals. They follow a form of Shia Islam tracing its spiritual heritage to imams in medieval North Africa. There are approximately 1 million followers worldwide.
Some members of the community who have spoken against the practice said the surgery is performed to suppress female sexuality, reduce sexual pleasure and curb promiscuity, according to the criminal complaint.
The procedure has been illegal in the U.S. since 1996 and there are no health benefits for girls and women, according to the World Health Organization.
On April 12, two days after the flight and raid, Nagarwala was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport while trying to board a flight to Kenya.
A source said Bhabrawala’s flight was planned before FBI agents raided the clinic because the leader’s three-year term had ended and he was moving back to India, where the sect is based.
It is unclear exactly when Bhabrawala’s term as mosque president ended but his U.S. visa expires July 7 and he already had shipped his possessions back to India, a source said.
Bhabrawala lived in a Farmington Hills home on Sunnydale behind the Farmington Hills mosque on Orchard Lake Road. The home is owned by a nonprofit group affiliated with the mosque, according to city property records.
Gabel cautioned against drawing conclusions about why federal agents let Bhabrawala leave the country.
“He was able to get out of the country — that happens with cases when it is still sort of early and the government’s not sure how things will shake out,” Gabel said.
Federal agents have wide latitude to search electronic devices at airports without a warrant, Gabel said.
Nagarwala, who is being held without bond, and the Attars are scheduled to stand trial June 27 in federal court in Detroit.
The Attars are due in federal court Wednesday for a hearing, during which a magistrate judge could release the couple on bond.