The federal government’s investigation into female genital mutilation has gripped a small Indian-Muslim community in fear as many of the group's young girls have been pulled out of school, interrogated and medically checked for genital cutting in recent weeks.
They include the daughters of the accused doctors at the center of the historic case.
Multiple sources familiar with the case told the Free Press that in the wake of allegations that a local doctor cut the genitals of two Minnesota girls, the federal government and Child Protective Services have targeted several families in the Dawoodi Bohra community, which has long viewed female circumcision as a religious tradition. They say several young Bohra girls have been questioned by CPS about genital mutilation and eventually subjected to medical exams to check for cutting.
Sources say among the girls who have undergone such exams is the 11-year-old daughter of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, 44, of Northville, who is charged with cutting the genitals of two Minnesota girls at a Livonia clinic in February; and the 8-year-old daughter of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, 53, of Livonia, who is charged with letting Nagarwala use his clinic to carry out the procedures.
Several Bohra families whose daughters were ordered to undergo these medical exams have retained their own attorneys but are afraid to talk, according to the lawyers.
Defense lawyers, meanwhile, are questioning the government's tactics in a case that they say is wreaking havoc on an otherwise quiet, discreet community.
"They are terrified that if they don't cooperate, the state is going to come and take their children. And the fathers are terrified, too," said attorney Margaret Raben, who is representing two families whose daughters underwent medical exams for genital cutting last month.
Especially alarming, Raben said, was that the families were interrogated days before the doctor was even charged. Raben said she was contacted by two Bohra families in April, about two days before criminal charges were formally announced against Nagarwala. She said parents told her that their daughters had been pulled out of their classes and questioned at school about genital mutilation. The mothers were then called to the school and questioned, she said, and authorities eventually went to their homes and "ambushed" the parents.
"They literally had no idea the context of this," Raben said, noting her clients' two girls were examined on April 11 and 13. Nagarwala was arrested April 12.
"There is a steady stream of these investigations," Raben said. "Everybody is anxious."
"My clients are not sophisticated people," Raben said. "They are not familiar with the ways of the court system and frankly, they are terrified ... What they're telling these parents is that they want all of these little girls examined by a particular physician that they've already chosen."
According to Raben, the exams are being performed at Children's Hospital by a doctor who does a lot of child sexual abuse investigations. She said many in the Bohra community are cooperating with authorities and she described her clients as "good, loving people."
"My parents firmly deny that anything was ever done in a ritual way to their 7-year-olds," Raben said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment. So did the FBI and the lawyers for Nagarwala and Attar, both of whom are locked up pending trial.
In a lengthy hearing Wednesday, Attar's lawyer, Mary Chartier, argued for bond, saying the government is "overreaching" and wrongfully accusing her client of engaging in female genital mutilation. She argued that her client did not take part in any actual cutting procedures, and that the case is really about a less-harmful procedure that is part of a deeply held and long-standing religious tradition.
"It is his deeply held religious belief that what was happening at the clinic was not FGM," Chartier said, stressing it was a "religious based" tradition that is only performed by women. "Dr. Attar has every reason to fight this out."
Chartier also stressed: "There is not one piece of evidence that Dr. Attar ever touched a child."
Attar is charged alongside his wife, Farida Attar, who is accused of holding the girls' hands during the genital cutting procedures and then trying to cover up what happened. She was ordered locked up as well, despite her lawyer Matt Newburg's assertion that "this is a religious practice."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford rejected the religious argument altogether, saying bond would be decided on the allegations, not religion.
"It is important to me ... to take religion out of it and focus on the allegations that young girls' genitals were mutilated and that the defendants played a role," said Stafford, noting the defense claim that the procedure isn't as harmful as the government claims isn't "persuasive."
"I think it's common knowledge that the cutting of the genitalia of a 7-year-old child would be painful," Stafford said. "I find this to be a serious crime."
Chartier also suggested her client was being persecuted for being Muslim. Specifically, she challenged the government's characterization of phone calls that Dr. Attar had with a Muslim religious leader. The government has claimed that Attar helped organize the Minnesota girls' visits to Michigan and that his 50 phone calls to that Muslim man – who had a Minnesota number – were part of that planning. But Chartier said her client was only talking to the man because he was helping him memorize the Quran.
"I highly doubt that if this were one Christian man talking to another Christian man" that Attar would be in this situation, Chartier said.
Chartier also challenged the government's surveillance evidence, which placed Dr. Attar outside the clinic Feb. 3, the day the two Minnesota girls allegedly had their genitals cut by Nagarwala. Prosecutors say Dr. Attar let Nagarwala in the clinic. Chartier said that her client was at a Barnes & Noble that night buying books for his daughter – who wanted to buy "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" – and that a receipt from the bookstore confirms his whereabouts.
But the government argued it has surveillance video and text messages that prove he was at the clinic parking lot on the day of the alleged mutilations, at about the same time Nargawala arrived. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said that Dr. Attar met his wife at the clinic parking lot, picked up his daughter and took her to Barnes & Noble that night after receiving a text message from his wife saying "she didn't want him or her daughter present in the clinic that night."
Woodward argued that the defendants knew they were engaging in illegal activity, and did it anyway for years, starting as early as 2005. And they went to great lengths to cover up what they did, she said.
"Dr. Attar told people in the community to say, 'We didn't do this. Deny it. Say it's a medical exam and nothing else,' " Woodward said. "There is no question that these defendants knew that this was illegal and they did it anyway."
The judge noted that while the surveillance photos were grainy, the text messages and other evidence in the case were strong enough to warrant detaining the defendants.
Nagarwala, an emergency room doctor with the Henry Ford Health System, has been fired. She is not accused of performing any genital mutilation at the hospital, but rather at a clinic in Livonia owned by Attar.
In court Wednesday, two of Attar's patients came to offer a sign of support. Ernie and Christie Otter of Livonia said they have known Dr. Attar for about 11 years and that he's been a good doctor to their family. They said he has helped them and their son with some difficult situations, and they feel badly and "conflicted" about what his legal ordeal.
"I do not agree with the (genital cutting) procedure at all ... but it's a difficult conflict," Christine Otter, 74, said, noting the facts of the case have not yet been presented. "We feel so close to the doctor ... we're very conflicted."
Ernie Otter called Attar a good friend and a good doctor. "He's innocent until proven guilty," he said, stressing he wants Attar to know that "We didn't turn our back on him" in a time of need.
Attar, his wife and Nagarwala are part of a small, Indian-Muslim community known as the Dawoodi Bohra, which was at the center of an Australian genital cutting prosecution that sent three people to prison in 2015. Nagarwala has maintained that she did not engage in any actual cutting but rather removed only a membrane from the girl's genitalia and gave it to he parents for burial as part of a religious custom.
According to the court documents, Attar, an internist, has admitted to authorities that Nagarwala used his clinic after hours to treat children ages 6-9 for problems with their genitals, including genital rashes, but that she only saw the patients "when the clinic is closed on Friday evenings or Saturdays."
She never billed for the procedures nor documented them, the complaint said, noting multiple other young girls have told authorities that Nagarwala also performed genital mutilation on them.
The Dawoodi Bohra community in Detroit has said that it is cooperating with authorities and that it does not "support the violation of any U.S. law, local, state or federal ... Any violation of U.S. law is counter to instructions to our community members. It does not reflect the everyday lives of the Dawoodi Bohras in America."
According to court records, the federal government's investigation has relied on cell phone records, surveillance video and medical evidence to bring charges against three individuals who were all placed at the alleged scene of the crime. The case involves two Minnesota girls whose mothers brought them to Michigan in February for what the girls thought was a special girls weekend. Instead, prosecutors allege, they ended up at the Livonia clinic on Feb. 3, where they underwent genital mutilation procedures.
A follow-up exam by a Minnesota doctor revealed that the girls' genitals had been altered or removed, the government has argued. Investigators also interviewed the girls, who said they had procedures performed on their genitalia in Livonia, prosecutors say. The Minnesota parents have not been charged.
Authorities said they also intercepted phone calls in which Attar's wife is heard telling one Michigan member of the religious community not to cooperate if investigators inquire about the procedures. She allegedly told that parent to "completely deny" allegations of genital mutilation and "to say that nothing happened."