A Detroit area physician has been charged with performing genital mutilation on multiple 6- to 8-year-old girls as part of a religious and cultural practice at a medical clinic in Livonia, in what is believed to be the first federal prosecution of its kind in the U.S.
According to criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, two of the victims' parents brought them to the clinic 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, 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 genital mutilation on young girls and women to curb their sexuality in an attempt to reduce sexual pleasure and promiscuity. In the U.S., genital mutilation qualifies as a criminal sexual act as the intent of the procedure is considered to abuse, humiliate, harass or degrade.
Nagarwala, a U.S. citizen who also speaks Gujarati -- a language spoken in western India -- appeared in federal court in Detroit this afternoon handcuffed and shackled, wearing a white headscarf, glasses and long white dress with colorful embroidery near her shackled feet. She agreed to remain locked up pending a detention hearing on Monday, when a judge will determine whether to grant her bond or keep her jailed pending the outcome of her trial.
Two male family members were in the courtroom, but said nothing to reporters. Her lawyer, Bloomfield Hills attorney Shannon Smith, declined comment.
Her employer, Henry Ford Health System, expressed concern about the allegations and 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."
The U.S. Attorney's Office says this is the first such criminal case in the country, with prosecutors relying on a 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.
It is not clear exactly how the doctor came on the federal government's radar. But according to the complaint unsealed today in U.S. District Court in Detroit, the case involves two Minnesota girls and their parents who came to metro Detroit for what was portrayed as a "special girls trip. They stayed at a hotel in Farmington Hills 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 several other children who may have been victimized by Nagarwala between 2005 and 2007, including children in Detroit. On April 10, authorities interviewed several young girls in Michigan about genital mutilation and multiple girls said that they had the procedure performed on them by Nagarwala, the affidavit said. Authorities also interviewed some of those girls' parents, who either denied knowing of the genital mutilation procedure or said that it didn't happen.
"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 FGM on minors will be held accountable under federal law," stated 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 justice department said today, vowing the justice department "is committed to stopping female genital mutilation in this country."
On Tuesday, authorities caught up with Nagarwala, who volunteered to be interviewed by a Homeland Security agent and Michigan child protective services personnel, the complaint said. During her interview, she said that she is aware that female genitalia mutilation is illegal in the US, but denied every performing FGM on any minor 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 System 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, the same ethnic area that Mahatma Gandhi came from.
According to court documents, investigators relied on cell phone records and surveillance video to piece together the case against Nagarwala. It's unclear what led them the doctor to begin with. According to the complaint, federal investigators at some point received a tip that Nagarwala had performed genital mutilation on two young girls in Livonia, so they followed up with an investigation.
First, they searched the doctor's phone records, which revealed a string of phone calls in February between the doctor and a Minnesota couple with a 7-year-old daughter. Then, with the help of cellular records and surveillance video, federal agents learned that a 7-year-old girl and her mother had traveled to metro Detroit on Feb. 3 and stayed at a Farmington Hills hotel along with another 7-year-old girl and her parent. The next day, they were back in Minnesota. But while in metro Detroit, the girls visited Nagarwala at a Livonia clinic and underwent genital mutilation procedures, court records state.
A month after the visit to Detroit, both girls interviewed with a forensic expert with the FBI. One of the girls said that she thought she was coming to Detroit for a "special" girls trip, but after arriving at the hotel, she learned that she and the other girl had to go to the doctor because "our tummies hurt."
While at the doctor's office, a procedure "to get the germs out" of her was performed, the complaint stated. 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."
On April 10 and 11, a medical doctor in Minnesota performed medical exams on both girls, pursuant to a search warrant. That doctor told the FBI that both girl's genitals were not normal in appearance and had been "altered or removed."
The parents of one of the girls were interviewed by Minnesota Child Protective Services personnel and a federal agent. They said they took the girl to Detroit to see Nagarwala for a "cleansing" of extra skin, the complaint said.
According to the World Health Organization, FGM is an internationally recognized violation of human rights of girls and women.