DETROIT — A Detroit-area physician faces federal charges for allegedly performing female genital mutilation on multiple 6- to 7-year-old girls as part of a religious and cultural practice at a Michigan medical clinic, in what is believed to be the first federal prosecution of its kind in the U.S.
According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Wednesday, the victims’ parents brought them to the clinic in Livonia, Mich., from Minnesota — pretending it was a “special” girls trip — and later told the girls to keep what was happening a secret.
The accused is Jumana Nagarwala, 44, of Northville, Mich., an emergency room doctor at Henry Ford Hospital, who — according to the federal government — is a member of a religious and cultural community that practices female genital mutilation on young girls and women to curb their sexuality and make sex painful. In the U.S., female genital mutilation qualifies as a criminal sexual act as the intent of the procedure is considered to abuse, humiliate, harass or degrade.
Nagarwala did not perform the mutilation at the hospital, the government alleges, but rather at the Livonia clinic.
The U.S. Attorneys Office says this is the first such criminal case in the country, with prosecutors relying on a law that criminalizes the practice of female genital 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 the intent to engage in a criminal sexual activity.
According to the complaint in U.S. District Court in Detroit, which was unsealed Thursday, phone call records and surveillance video show that in February, two Minnesota girls and their parents went to the Detroit area for what was portrayed as a “special” girls trip. They stayed at a hotel and ended up visiting Nagarwala, thinking they were seeing the doctor because their “tummies hurt.” Instead, the complaint said, the girls had their genitalia altered or removed.
One of the victims said “her parents told her that the procedure is a secret and that she is not supposed to talk about it,” FBI agent Kevin Swanson wrote in his affidavit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
According to the affidavit, the FBI’s investigation has identified other children who may have been victimized by Nagarwala between 2005 and 2007.
“Female genital mutilation constitutes a particularly brutal form of violence against women and girls. It is also a serious federal felony in the United States. The practice has no place in modern society and those who perform (female genital mutilation) on minors will be held accountable under federal law,” said acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch.
Especially egregious, authorities said, is that the accused is a doctor who is supposed to help and heal people.
“Despite her oath to care for her patients, Dr. Nagarwala is alleged to have performed horrifying acts of brutality on the most vulnerable victims,” acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco of the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday, vowing the Justice Department “is committed to stopping female genital mutilation in this country.”
Authorities spoke with Nagarwala on Tuesday. She volunteered to be interviewed by a Homeland Security agent and Michigan child protective services personnel, the complaint said. During her interview, she said she is aware female genital mutilation is illegal in the U.S., but denied ever performing it on any minor children. She also said she had no knowledge of the procedure being performed on anyone in her cultural community.
Nagarwala is due in federal court in Detroit on Thursday for an initial appearance.
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, which is spoken by the Gujaratis, who hail from the western India state of Gujarat, the same ethnic area that Mahatma Gandhi came from.
It is unclear what led authorities to the doctor.
Phone records showed that the doctor and two families from Minnesota were in regular communication in February. On Feb. 3, the FBI would learn, two young girls from Minnesota and their parents stayed at a Farmington Hills, Mich., hotel and went to see a doctor at a clinic in Livonia because “our tummies hurt,” one of the girls told an FBI forensic expert.
While at the doctor’s office, a procedure “to get the germs out” of her was performed, the complaint stated. That procedure was female genital mutilation. The girl was given a pad to wear, and was told “not to talk about the procedure,” the complaint said. A second girl told a similar story, telling the investigator that “her parents told her that the procedure is a secret and that she is not supposed to talk about it.”
A medical doctor in Minnesota examined both girls this week, pursuant to a search warrant. The doctor told the FBI both girls’ genitals were not normal in appearance and had been “altered or removed.”
The parents of one of the girls told Minnesota Child Protective Services personnel and a federal agent that they took the girl to Detroit to see Nagarwala for a “cleansing” of extra skin, the complaint said.
According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation is an internationally recognized violation of human rights of girls and women. The organization, citing a 2016 UNICEF report, said more than 200 million girls and women alive have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where female genital mutilation is concentrated.
– Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @TBaldas