Mutilation probe widens amid deportation fears
Detroit — The grand jury investigation of female genital mutilation has spread to at least three more states as federal agents have identified new targets, according to federal court records.
The targets live in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, according to federal court records and interviews with people close to a criminal case that, until now, was focused solely on conduct involving girls from Michigan and Minnesota.
Defense lawyers involved in the investigation fear investigators, namely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, are pressuring people with threats of deportation if they do not cooperate.
The developments are the latest in a case that alleges six people participated in a conspiracy to cut prepubescent girls as part of a religious procedure practiced by a small sect of Shia Muslims from India, the Dawoodi Bohra. Central figures in the case are Dr. Jumana Nagarwala of Northville, who is accused of mutilating girls’ genitalia at the Burhani Medical Clinic in Livonia, owned by Dr. Fakhruddin Attar.
“It is extremely intimidating to individuals when immigration agents show up at your house,” Fakhruddin Attar’s lawyer, Mary Chartier, told The Detroit News. “There is definitely an unspoken message, if not an explicitly spoken message, of ‘tell us what we want to hear or you may find yourself deported from this country.’ That is not lost on the government. They know exactly what they are doing.”
Steve Francis, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigation’s office in Detroit, denied that agents were threatening people with deportation in the nation’s first federal prosecution involving female genital mutilation.
“Homeland Security Investigations special agents conduct all investigative activities with the highest level of professionalism and respect,” Francis said in a statement Tuesday. “Any allegations to the contrary are baseless and without merit.”
The head of the FBI in Detroit defended his agents’ handling of the case.
“The FBI has and will continue to tirelessly investigate allegations involving harm to children, and we will pursue each and every lead in this case, as it is literally some of the most important work that we do,” said David P. Gelios, special agent in charge for the Detroit Division of the FBI.
“At the same time, just as we remain steadfast in our efforts to protect children from harm, FBI special agents adhere to the highest level of professionalism and uphold the constitutional protections afforded to everyone in the United States — victims and defendants alike,” he said. “Any accusations to the contrary are misguided, without merit, and cut against not only what the FBI stands for but also the work performed by the men and women of the FBI every day.”
Meanwhile, Nagarwala, 44, will fight to be released on bond during an 11 a.m. hearing Wednesday in front of U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. She is the only person charged in the case being held without bond; Attar and his wife, Dr. Farida Attar, were released last month.
Federal officials have identified new targets in Los Angeles, Chicago and Minnesota, Nagarwala’s lawyer Shannon Smith wrote in a court filing Tuesday. She believes more people will be charged in federal court.
The News has learned federal agents are investigating at least one other person in New York. One criminal defense lawyer based in New York City declined to comment about the investigation during an interview Monday.
Los Angeles defense lawyer Haytham Faraj is involved in the case but declined to identify whether he has a client or clarify his role in the investigation. But he said FBI and ICE agents have approached doctors and members of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Los Angeles, Illinois and other cities as part of the investigation.
“A lot of doctors have received visits,” Faraj said. “Maybe the agents figure they have someone with a non-white name and can get someone on an immigration charge.”
ICE has a special unit that investigates female genital mutilation, among other human rights violations. The Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit’s work has led to more than 590 known or suspected human rights violators being removed from the U.S.
“They can talk to as many people as they would like and can storm into as many cities as they want, but the fact remains that Dr. (Fakhruddin) Attar is under the very well-informed belief that what was occurring was not female genital mutilation,” Chartier said.
Nagarwala’s lawyer, meanwhile, attacked the government’s case in a court filing Tuesday while arguing the doctor should be released on bond pending an Oct. 10 trial. Nagarwala has been held without bond since April.
Nagarwala did not perform female genital mutilation, Smith said. Instead, Nagarwala merely removed mucous membrane from the girls’ genitalia during a benign religious procedure, placed the material on gauze pads and gave it to their families for burial.
The government has overreached by estimating that Nagarwala performed female genital mutilation on at least 100 girls, Smith wrote in the filing. Medical evidence does not support the claim that girls were mutilated, the lawyer added.
The most recent indictment in the case alleges six girls were mutilated — including four from Michigan.
“There is also absolutely no evidence to support the government’s statement that Dr. Nagarwala cut the genitals of dozens of victims,” Smith wrote. “When the government makes claims like it ‘estimates’ that Dr. Nagarwala performed (female genital mutilation) on at least 100 minor girls, the government is unable to support the assertion and certainly has provided no discovery to support the claim.”
Some members of the Dawoodi Bohra community who have spoken against the procedure said genital mutilation is performed to suppress female sexuality, reduce sexual pleasure and curb promiscuity, according to court records. Female genital mutilation has been a federal crime in the U.S. since 1996.
The procedure is most common in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, along with migrants from those regions, says the World Health Organization.
There are four major types of female genital mutilation, including a partial or total removal of the clitoris.
Federal prosecutors are fighting the request for bond but the government’s argument is contained in a sealed federal court filing.
Smith attacked portions of the sealed filing, including the government’s argument that female genital mutilation can lead to short-term complications, including pain, risk of bleeding and hemorrhage, shock, infection, sepsis and even death.
“Not one (girl) in this case has suffered any such complication, contrary to the government’s generalization,” Smith wrote. “Assumedly, the government is putting forth such information in an effort to show the harm (female genital mutilation) may cause; however, such assertions are not relevant to the matter before the court when not one person has any documented complications outlined by the government.”
Smith faulted prosecutors for failing to turn over a “shred of medical evidence,” even though some medical records have been provided in related attempts by state officials to terminate the rights of parents charged in the federal case.
Prosecutors allege that two girls’ clitorises were completely removed but the evidence is lacking for at least one girl, Smith said.
“Further, the report, for that particular complainant, shows a lack of (scarring) and a lack of evidence of any cutting, excision, or surgery,” Smith wrote. “Clearly, the government’s assertion of complete removal is not supported by medical findings.”
The case emerged in April after Nagarwala was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and accused of performing the illegal surgery on two 7-year-old girls from Minnesota who were brought to Metro Detroit by relatives.
Nagarwala was arrested while trying to fly to Kenya. She had previously scheduled a round-trip flight to Kenya, where two daughters attend school.
The trip does not indicate Nagarwala is a flight risk, Smith said. The doctor told federal officials about the trip beforehand and she planned to return to Michigan and rejoin her husband and two other children, her lawyer wrote.
“... if she intended to flee the country, it is unthinkable that she would inform law enforcement the details of her supposed ‘escape from justice,’ ” Smith wrote.
Nagarwala should be released on bond under the same conditions as the Attars, Smith wrote. The Attars were placed on house arrest, and barred from using computers and accessing the internet. They also cannot have any contact with alleged victims or witnesses.
Nagarwala could help translate hours of wiretapped phone calls, emails, texts, voicemails and other records that are in a foreign language if she is released on bond, the lawyer wrote.
“This case is important to not only Dr. Nagarwala, but also to the Dawoodi Bohra community as a whole,” Smith wrote. “Dr. Nagarwala intends to vigorously defend this case and show she has been wrongfully accused.”