LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British doctor accused of carrying out female genital mutilation on a new mother was acquitted on Wednesday following the country’s first FGM trial.
The doctor, Dhanuson Dharmasena, said FGM was an "abhorrent practice" and he was "extremely relieved" by the verdict. His family – weeping with relief – said he had been made a scapegoat.
The landmark trial took place amid growing public outrage over the authorities' failure to put anyone on trial for FGM, although the practice has been illegal in Britain for 30 years.
A leading obstetrician branded the prosecution a “ludicrous” travesty of justice which would leave doctors on labor wards terrified of touching women who had been subjected to FGM.
An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales have undergone FGM, the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, which can cause serious physical and psychological problems as well as complications in childbirth.
Despite the verdict, anti-FGM campaigners said the trial sent a strong message that FGM was against the law and that the law would in future be enforced.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, later defended her decision to bring the case to trial and said she remained determined to prosecute cases of FGM where there was enough evidence.
The case centered on whether a suture put in by Dharmasena after he delivered the woman’s baby amounted to FGM or was medically necessary.
The woman, known as AB in court, had undergone FGM as a child in Somalia, when her labia had been sewn together.
Dharmasena told London's Southwark Crown Court he had made a 1.5-2cm cut through the fused tissue after the woman went into emergency labor at London’s Whittington Hospital on November 24, 2012.
The prosecution said he restitched her labia together after the birth, thereby performing FGM. But Dharmasena said he only put in a small suture at the top of the cut to stop bleeding.
A second defendant, Hasan Mohamed, 41, was cleared of encouraging the doctor to carry out the procedure.
His lawyer, Ali Hussain, said Mohamed believed the case was a “show trial” brought by the crown prosecution service to restore confidence after its failures over the last 30 years.
Dharmasena, who was a junior registrar at the time he delivered the baby, said he had received no medical training in FGM and had never seen a patient with FGM before AB. He had also never observed a deinfibulation - the procedure to re-open a woman who has undergone FGM.
But the 32-year-old doctor from Ilford accepted in hindsight he should have sutured the edges of the cut separately rather than sewing it together, in line with the hospital’s FGM guidelines.
Mr Justice Sweeney said Dharmasena had been “badly let down” by systemic failures at the hospital; AB was not referred to an FGM specialist during antenatal appointments and was not given a birth plan or interpreter.
Dr Katrina Erskine, a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist at London’s Homerton Hospital, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the decision to prosecute Dharmasena was “absolutely ghastly” and went against all natural justice.
“FGM is one of the most horrendous forms of child abuse … and we’ve got to do all we can to tackle it. (But) to equate what a doctor does when he has just delivered a baby with slicing off a little girl’s clitoris and labia, suturing them together and torturing her - it takes my breath away!” said Erskine, who has been dealing with the results of FGM for 30 years.
Far from helping women with FGM, the trial would put them at risk because everyone would now be “absolutely terrified of touching them”, she added.
Another obstetrician tweeted: “Right issue, right time, absolute wrong case.”
But Equality Now, which campaigns against FGM, hailed the trial as “a watershed moment” for those affected by FGM as it showed the law would be implemented. It said the case had also highlighted gaps in the system and the need for better training.
Saunders said in a statement that the Crown Prosecution Service remained determined to prosecute the 'invidious crime' of FGM, adding that "we do not shy away from difficult cases."
The fact that the judge had dismissed defence applications to stop the case three times showed that he agreed that the evidence should be considered by the jury, she said.
"Today's verdict will not stop the important work that we and the police are doing in encouraging victims to come forward and looking at new ways to help bring cases to court," she said.
Editing by Tim Pearce