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Federal prosecutors add new charges in female genital mutilation case

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

Federal prosecutors have filed new charges in a female genital cutting case against Michigan doctor Jumana Nargawala and seven other defendants. 

The case is the first to be brought under a 1996 federal statute that criminalizes performing female genital mutilation.

The updated indictment filed on Wednesday identified three new victims as elementary school-age girls from Illinois.

Dr. Nagarwala has already been charged with performing female genital mutilation on two girls from Minnesota and four girls from Michigan at a Livonia clinic, with the new indictment bringing the total to nine. 

Peter Henning,  a Wayne State University Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said the new indictment will likely result in the trial being delayed. It is currently scheduled to start in January.

"I would expect the defense to ask for additional time to obtain discovery," said Henning. "They'd also have to have their experts perhaps examine the victims."

The defense has argued that the federal female genital mutilation law is unconstitutional because the procedure has nothing to do with interstate commerce, and therefore Congress did not have authority under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution to pass the statute.

Henning said adding three victims from a third state will  bolster the prosecution's case.

"I think what prosecutors may be trying to do is by adding the Illinois victims, and you have the Minnesota victims, is that even if they were to lose the Michigan victims, they could still argue that this has met even an implicit requirement that there be an impact on interstate commerce," said Henning. "When people travel from one state to another, that can be more than sufficient to establish an impact on interstate commerce."

The eighth count of the new indictment adds one new charge against Nagarwala. That's conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, a felony punishable by up to 30 years.

"That's defined as intentional touching of another person who's under 16 with the intent to abuse, harrass, or degrade the person," Henning said. "I think the government is going to argue that this particular procedure abused these young girls, and therefore even though we don't think of this as within the norm of criminal sexual conduct, that it does fit within the statute."  

Eight months ago, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman dismissed an earlier charge under a different statutory provision that Nagarwala and another defendant had conspired to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.

Charges against Dr. Nagarwala and the seven other defendants were initially brought in April 2017.

Dr. Nagarwala has denied committing any crime. She says she's performed a religious custom on girls from her Muslim sect, the India-based Dawoodi Bohra.

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