The doctor insists it wasn’t cutting. But the judge wasn’t convinced and locked her up.
In a historic female genital mutilation case that has planted a bull’s-eye on what prosecutors are calling an “incredibly secretive” religious ritual, a federal magistrate on Monday denied bond to an Indian-Muslim doctor accused of mutilating the genitals of two Minnesota girls at a Livonia medical clinic.
The decision to lock up Dr. Jumana Nagarwala,,44, of Northville, came after federal prosecutors called her a flight risk and a danger to the community, saying she has hurt numerous girls for years, knowing it was wrong, and even ignored a 2016 directive by her religious community not to engage in female genital mutilation because it’s illegal in the U.S.
But it wasn’t just the government’s words that did the doctor in. Rather, an admission by the physician’s own lawyer seemed to weigh heavily with the judge, who in a heated exchange pressed the defense attorney to explain what exactly her client did to two 7-year-old girls on a February night in the undisclosed suburban clinic.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub questioned why the two girls were at the clinic after hours, and, why the doctor kept no records of the visits and never billed for them.
With her hand trembling as she clutched some documents in the standing-room-only courtroom, defense attorney Shannon Smith disclosed that Nagarwala did perform a procedure on the girls’ genitals, but stressed that it wasn’t cutting. Rather, she said, the doctor removed a membrane from the girls’ genitals, using a “scraper,” wrapped it in gauze and gave it to the girls’ parents so that they could bury it as part of a religious custom practiced by an Indian-Muslim community known as the Dawoodi Bohra.
“All of the acts that my client performed on children” did not involve female genital mutilation, said Smith, arguing that “the issue of female genital mutilation presents vagueness.”
“We understand that this is a very serious case,” Smith said. But, she said, her client did not do what the government is accusing her of and has cooperated.
Majzoub appeared visibly miffed.
“It seems that you are admitting that this defendant did see young girls in a clinic, after it was closed on Fridays,” said Majzoub, who pressed Smith to explain some of the government’s allegations.
Specifically, Majzoub noted that medical doctors had examined both Minnesota girls and concluded that their vaginal parts had been altered or cut. What about those conclusions, she asked the defense.
Smith said her client disagreed with those findings, and said that her client was not responsible for any abnormalities that were cited in that report, but rather that the girls may have caused their own problems by scratching.
Majzoub also asked why the doctor gave one of the girls a shot, as alleged by the prosecution.
Smith said her client denies giving any of the girls a shot.
Majzoub also asked why the doctor gave the girls’ pads to wear for bleeding, as was also alleged by the prosecution.
Smith said there was no bleeding, but rather the pads were used to soak up iodine that was used in the procedure.
“Your position is that your client did not, in any way, engage in cutting,” Mazjoub said.
Smith agreed, stating: “It was completely a religious practice.”
In court Monday, the government painted a much different portrait of Nagarwala, saying she performed female genital mutilation on several young girls over the years, directed them to keep it quiet and encouraged their parents to lie to authorities when investigators started asking questions.
“The conduct of the defendant spans years,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said in court, calling Nagarwala’s crimes “heinous” acts that were part of an an “incredibly secretive” religious custom.
“She knew that this was illegal but did it anyway,” Woodward said, stressing: “As a medical doctor, she is aware that female genital mutilation has no medical purpose.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said this is the first such criminal case in the country, with prosecutors relying on a federal law that criminalizes the practice of female genitalia mutilation, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. The doctor, however, could get 10 years to life in prison for another crime she was charged with: Transportation of an individual with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. She also is charged with lying to a federal agent.
Monday’s hearing offered more details about the government’s case and the background of the doctor at the center of it. According to courtroom testimony, Nagarwala, a U.S. citizen, was born in Washington, D.C., is married and has four children, two of whom live in Africa. She is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community — a small sect of Indian Muslims — and belongs to a mosque in Farmington Hills.
Nagarwala works as an emergency room doctor at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, where she was placed on administrative leave after the allegations surfaced last week. Nagarwala earned her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1998, according to the Henry Ford Health Systems website. Her bio lists the languages she speaks as English and Gujarati, spoken by the Gujaratis, who hail from the western India state of Gujarat.
Henry Ford Health Systems has stated none of the alleged activity occurred at its facilities and it does not support such procedures.
According to prosecutors, Nagarwala was arrested Thursday while boarding an international flight to Kenya, where she was going to visit a daughter. Her lawyer said that she wasn’t trying to flee, but had planned that trip long in advance, before she knew of the government’s investigation.
According to the government, Nagarwala’s arrest came after the FBI received tips that she had performed genital mutilation on two Minnesota girls at the Livonia clinic in February. Prosecutors said they found a series of phone calls and more than a dozen text messages between Nagarwala and one of the girls’ mothers, who on Jan. 23 sent this text to the doctor: “Feb 3 at 6:45 p.m.?”
It was on Feb. 3, prosecutors allege, that Nagarwala performed genital mutilation on the two 7-year-olds. Hotel and surveillance records backed up this allegation, placing the girls and their mothers at a hotel in Farmington Hills that same day, and then at the Livonia clinic, prosecutors said. Pursuant to a search warrant, a doctor in Minnesota later performed an exam on the girls and concluded that their genitals had been altered or cut, prosecutors said.
According to Woodward, authorities interviewed the owner of the Livonia clinic, who said that Nagarwala often used the clinic on Friday and Saturday nights — after it was closed — to treat children for genital rashes. Nagarwala used the clinic for these purposes about five or six times a year, on some occasions multiple children showed up, investigators were told.
Woodward said that investigators also interviewed one of the Minnesota girls’ mothers, who admitted to taking her daughter to Nagarwala, but for a cleaning process. That same mother, she said, had previously reached out to Nagarwala and told her that the authorities were asking questions. She asked Nagarwala for advice on what she should say.
“We know that she directed the mother in Minnesota to deny everything,” Woodward said, noting that Nagarwala also deleted several of her own texts with the parents.
In pushing for Nagarwala to remain locked up pending the outcome of her trial, Woodward argued that the doctor had both the financial resources and motive to flee.
Judge Majzoub agreed, noting the doctor had no documents, statements or witnesses to back up her claims that she never cut anyone, whereas the government had witnesses and documents to support their arguments.
“We have multiple victims, and that gives the court great pause,” Majzoub said. n”There is clear and convincing evidence that (Nagarwala) poses a danger to the community.”
In Australia last year, the Dawoodi Bohra community was at the center of a landmark female genital mutilation there as three people were each sentenced to 15 months prison for carrying out the procedure on two girls.
Among the convicted were the girls’ mother, a retired nurse and a Dawoodi Bohra spiritual leader who was found guilty of helping the women cover up the mutilation.
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