Lawyer: Genital procedure on girls was part of 'religious practice'

A doctor accused of mutilating the genitals of young girls at a Detroit-area clinic is denying the allegations.

In a stunning revelation in federal court today, an attorney for a Detroit area doctor charged with mutilating the genitals of young girls admitted that her client performed a procedure on the juveniles' private parts, but maintained that it wasn't cutting.

Instead, the lawyer said Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, 44, of Northville, removed the membrane from the girls' genitals as part of a religious practice that is tied to an international Indian-Muslim group that the doctor belongs to.

Attorney Shannon Smith said that her client removed the membrane from the girls vaginal parts and gave it  the girls' parents, who would then bury it following a custom practiced by a small sect of Indian Muslims known as the Dawoodi  Bohra.

All of this was disclosed at a detention hearing for Nagarwala, who was ordered locked up pending the outcome of her case.

The judge concluded she was a danger to the community and a flight risk after hearing arguments from both sides.

The government argued that Nagarwala engaged in secretive practice that has potentially harmed numerous young girls across Michigan. And she did it after hours, in a private unnamed clinic in Livonia, without keeping any records or billing anyone, the government said.

"She knew that this was illegal but did it anyway," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said in court, claiming there's also a risk of Nagarwala and others pressuring others in their religious community not to talk to authorities about this "incredibly secretive" procedure.

"I think there's a preponderance of the evidence that your client poses a danger to the community," U.S. Magistrate Judge Monica Mazjoub said during the hearing, in which she pressed the defense to explain why Nagarwala performed these procedures at a clinic late at night, but never kept any records or billed for them.

Nagarwala, an emergency room doctor with Henry  Ford Health System, was charged Thursday with genital mutilation in what prosecutors are calling the first of its kind criminal case in the country. The case involves two 7-year-old Minnesota girls who came to metro Detroit in February with their mothers, not knowing that the reason for the trip was to have their genitals cut, prosecutors allege.

According to court documents, the girls thought they were in Michigan for a "special" girls trip, but instead ended up in the Livonia clinic, where Nagarwala allegedly mutilated their genitals as part of a cultural and religious practice. The girls were told to keep what happened a secret, but the FBI found out, records show.

Female genital mutilation, which experts say is practiced in 30 countries worldwide and has been performed on 200 million women living today,  is illegal in the US. The practice, which seeks to curb the sexuality of girls and women by making sex painful, qualifies as a criminal sexual act, as the intent of the procedure is considered to abuse, humiliate, harass or degrade.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says 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.

While the charges involve two girls, authorities believe Nagarwala has subjected numerous more girls to the procedure, including children in metro Detroit. Authorities would not comment on whether more charges are coming, but an FBI agent wrote in a court document that the investigation "has identified other children who may have been victimized by Nagarwala" and that "multiple minor girls" in Michigan have said that mutilation procedures  "had been performed on their genitals by Nagarwala."

Nagarwala, who is a U.S. citizen and lives in a $470,000 home with her husband in Oakland County,  has no criminal history.

Her employer, Henry Ford Health System said Nagarwala has been placed on administrative leave.

"We are shocked by the allegations," Henry Ford Health System spokesman David Olejarz said in statement, stressing: "The alleged criminal activity did not occur at any Henry Ford facility. We would never support or condone anything related to this practice."

Nagarwala was arrested on Thursday while boarding an international flight to go visit a daughter in Africa. The government conceded that this trip was planned in advance. But argued that  because she is now facing federal charges, she should not be released.

According to court records, she, volunteered to be interviewed by a Homeland Security agent and Michigan child protective services personnel. During her interview, she said that she is aware that female genitalia mutilation is illegal in the U.S., but denied ever performing the procedure on any children.  She also said that she had no knowledge of  the procedure being performed on anyone in her cultural community.

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.

At her initial appearance in court Thursday, two male relatives were in the courtroom, but they declined to comment. So did her lawyer, Bloomfield Hills attorney Shannon Smith.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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