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Judge dismisses most serious remaining charge against doctor accused of genital mutilation

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed the most serious remaining charge against a doctor accused of female genital mutilation.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala had sought a dismissal of a charge of conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct involving two 7-year-old Minnesota girls who were brought to Metro Detroit for what prosecutors call an illegally performed procedure. 

The procedure, abbreviated as FGM, is practiced by some members of the Dawoodi Bohra, a Muslim sect from India that has a small community in Metro Detroit.

Authorities allege Minnesota mothers Haseena Halfal and Zainab Hariyanawala brought their daughters to Detroit in February 2017 for the procedure. Authorities said the trip constituted a federal crime, which carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

There was no agreement to commit the crime and no conspiracy, Nagarwala's lawyer Shannon Smith wrote in a 2018 court filing while asking U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman to dismiss the charge.

In his opinion Wednesday, Friedman said it must “be dismissed because it fails to state an offense in light of the facts alleged in the indictment.”

Jumana Nagarwala

Addressing prosecutors’ claims, the judge wrote that “the mothers traveled with a motivating purpose of allowing someone else (i.e., Nagarwala) to engage in such conduct while they waited in another room. However one might characterize the actions of the mothers, they did not violate (federal law) because, as the government acknowledges, they did not travel with the intent to engage in (i.e., to commit) FGM themselves.”

Friedman added: “The government has alleged no facts from which a jury could find that (Nagarwala) agreed with the mothers that they or anyone else would travel with the requisite intent.”

The judge said the case would proceed on a single obstruction charge against Nagarwala as well as three other defendants involved: Fakhruddin Attar and Farida Attar, two doctors associated with a Livonia clinic, and Fatema Dahodwala, the mother of an alleged victim.

“The defense is not surprised by the judge’s decision as this case has been grossly overcharged, been misleading to the public, and when you have the opportunity to take a careful look at the case like Judge Friedman has, you would immediately see that the government has been wrong throughout the case,” Smith said Wednesday.

The case believed to be the nation’s first involving female genital mutilation emerged in April 2017 when Nagarwala was arrested and accused of heading a conspiracy that lasted 12 years and involved seven other people.

Prosecutors assert the girls — four from Michigan, two from Minnesota and three from Illinois — underwent female genital mutilation, which is an internationally recognized violation of human rights. However, defense lawyers say the procedure performed was benign and not FGM, which has been a traditional ritual in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as among migrants from those regions. An estimated 200 million women and girls have experienced female genital cutting worldwide.

In November, Friedman ruled that a 1996 federal law that bans female genital mutilation was unconstitutional because Congress lacked the power to regulate the behavior in the first place. He also dismissed the mutilation charges and removed four defendants from the case.

The case sparked outcry and prompted a new law in Michigan criminalizing female genital mutilation.