Detroit Genital mutilation case revs up amid grand jury activity

Detroit — As many as six members of a Muslim sect from India were questioned by a federal grand jury Wednesday as prosecutors pursue more criminal charges involving new girls in the nation's first female genital mutilation case.

The grand jury appearances by members of the Dawoodi Bohra community come as defense lawyers challenge the constitutionality of an untested federal law criminalizing female genital mutilation. Legal experts suspect the government is trying to bolster its case to withstand the legal challenge by adding more girls from multiple states.

The ongoing grand jury investigation and the prospect of additional charges could delay an unprecedented criminal trial scheduled to start in January in downtown Detroit. The criminal case has been closely followed closely in India, where the Dawoodi Bohra are based, and by international human rights groups opposed to female genital mutilation, a federal crime since 1996.

"It does sound like they’re trying to bolster their case," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “The government is not permitted to use a grand jury to aid in discovering evidence of crimes that have already been charged, but they can use a grand jury for new charges.”

Targets of a criminal investigation rarely appear in front of a grand jury, making it more likely the Dawoodi Bohra members are witnesses, legal experts said.

It is unknown whether the people who testified Wednesday were subpoenaed by the government and forced to answer questions. There is a general fear within the Dawoodi Bohra community that members could be excommunicated if they talk about the secretive practice of female genital mutilation, said Isufali Kundawala, a Bohra and retired anesthesiologist near Dallas who has spoken out against female genital mutilation.

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