Female genital mutilation case tossed following yearslong fight

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A judge Tuesday dismissed what remained of a landmark criminal case that started with allegations members of a Muslim sect abused young girls, saying prosecutors vindictively pursued new charges after a federal female genital mutilation law was declared unconstitutional.

In a pointed rebuke, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman criticized the conduct of prosecutors who waged a more than four-year fight against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala of Northville and three others who faced decades in prison if convicted of charges that included conspiracy, lying to investigators and tampering with witnesses.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala of Northville outside federal court in Detroit.

The case was being closely followed by members of the sect and international human-rights groups opposed to female genital mutilation and has raised awareness in the U.S. of a controversial procedure and prompted Michigan to enact new state laws criminalizing female genital mutilation.

"The government obtained the fourth superseding indictment, which asserts new and additional charges, in retaliation for defendants’ past success in having other charges dismissed," Friedman wrote. "Such vindictive or retaliatory prosecution 'is a due process violation ‘of the most basic sort.’”

The order comes almost three years after Friedman dismissed female genital mutilation charges against several doctors in the first criminal case of its kind nationwide, ruling the law was unconstitutional. 

At the time, Friedman delivered a significant, but not fatal, blow to a novel criminal prosecution because the judge left intact a portion of the case. By 2020, the judge had dismissed seven charges but prosecutors earlier this year filed a new indictment alleging witness tampering, lying to federal agents and conspiracy.

FBI agents leave the office of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar in April 2017.

Prosecutors said girls — four from Michigan, two from Minnesota and three from Illinois — underwent female genital mutilation, but defense lawyers say the procedure performed on the girls was benign and not female genital mutilation. They accused the government of overreaching.

“The real tragedy of this case is they will never get a chance to be vindicated,” in a courtroom, Nagarwala lawyer Shannon Smith said Tuesday. “I’m sure they will be thrilled that the case was dismissed but it’s almost like a bittersweet ending.”

Dr. Fakhruddin Attar

Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said Tuesday that she and her team of prosecutors were "very disappointed" by the dismissal.

"We take our duty to protect children very seriously," Mohsin said in a statement. "Child victims are vulnerable and they deserve our best efforts to hold accountable those who harm them. 

"Our prosecutorial team is comprised of some of our best and most experienced prosecutors. I stand behind them and commend them for their dedication, integrity, and commitment to protect innocent child victims of female genital mutilation.”

Nagarwala, Livonia Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, wife Dr. Farida Attar and Fatema Dahodwala of West Bloomfield Township, a mother of one of the alleged victims, argued earlier this month that the remaining charges should be dismissed. 

“I think if we had litigated this case based on the facts, we would have won,” Fakhruddin Attar's lawyer Mary Chartier told The News. “What the government alleged, didn’t happen.

“The biggest thing for our clients, in addition to the stress and pressure of dealing with this over half a decade, is they really got to see first-hand the enormous power of the federal government,” Chartier added. “They got to see the federal government can say what they want, true or not.”

Prosecutors have denied they were being vindictive. They noted female genital mutilation remains a federal crime and that Congress passed a strengthened law last year.

“I applaud this judge for his judicial courageousness,” said Brian Legghio, Dahodwala’s lawyer. “His rulings have been well researched, well reasoned and he was courageous in his decisions.”

Dahodwala is a citizen of India who faced imprisonment and certain deportation upon conviction. “Her daughters are United States citizens,” Legghio said. “She will have the freedom now to likely become a U.S. citizen.”

The fourth round of charges filed in March did not penalize the defendants or add more serious charges, prosecutors argued.

The indictment "sought to clarify the government’s theory of the offense and put the defendants on notice for the evidence that the government would introduce at trial," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward wrote.

The initial case represented the first challenge to a 22-year-old genital mutilation law that went unused until April 2017.

Fatema Dahodwala leaves federal court after being arraigned in a female genital mutilation case.

That's when Dr. Nagarwala was arrested and accused of heading a conspiracy that lasted 12 years, involved seven other people and led to mutilating the genitalia of nine girls as part of a religious procedure practiced by some members of the Dawoodi Bohra, a Muslim sect from India that has a small community in Metro Detroit.

In June 2017, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed new laws that carried up to 15 years in prison for those convicted of mutilating female genitalia or transporting girls to other states for the procedure.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews