A Note on the Latest FGM Prosecution Failure

From the Mail on Sunday:

A senior policewoman is facing questions over her links to the key witness in a failed female genital mutilation prosecution that cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds.

DCI Leanne Pook took control of the investigation after campaigner Sami Ullah claimed a minicab driver had told him he had allowed his daughter to undergo the barbaric practice.

…After Mr Ullah reported the cab driver to police, the man’s six-year- old daughter was examined by two experts for evidence of FGM but one could only find a ‘tiny’ mark and the other could not see the alleged lesion.

During an interview with police, the 29-year-old Somali driver insisted he was against FGM, and called his passenger a ‘liar’ for claiming they discussed the practice.

Ullah was a young outreach officer for Integrate UK, which campaigns on the issue in Bristol, while Pook, according to her Twitter presence @ASPEndFGM, is “Avon & Somerset Police Lead for response to Female Genital Mutilation.” Pook is also a trustee of Integrate, the charity for which Ullah was campaigning as a young outreach officer, and social media evidence suggests that they have personal rapport. Pook took Ullah’s statement, and she accepted a chocolate cake from the charity as a thank you when the driver was charged.

It should be noted that the second expert examined the girl two months after the first one, which leaves open the possibility that the first saw an injury that had healed by the time the second examination was performed. However, if the “tiny” mark really was significant, then we must accept that not only did an anti-FGM activist just happen to elicit a confession while taking a cab ride, but that the confession luckily related to something that had occurred just a short time before.

According to the Bristol Post, Ullah told the court that

…the driver said FGM was very wrong, but lots of people in his culture did it.

Mr Ullah thought it was strange to hear that the little girl had been cut, considering her father had just said he thought FGM was very wrong.

He said: “Despite his broken English he was understandable.

“He repeated that he had ‘done the small one to his daughter’.

The implication is perhaps that Ullah presented himself as an anti-FGM activist, and the driver supposedly agreed with his work but in his ignorance confessed to allowing “the small one” in the belief that this would be regarded as acceptable. An alternative possibility is deliberate entrapment, but if Ullah was playing amateur detective, surely he would have recorded the exchange?

The prevalence of FGM either performed in the UK (illegal since 1985) or on children taken out of the country for the purpose (illegal since 2003) remains curiously uncertain, but there is a striking contrast between figures alleged by activists and the dearth concrete evidence or testimony about particular cases over the past third of a century. That does not mean that the problem is contrived – it is very reasonable to suppose that the law must be flouted sometimes, and a Sunday Times reporter found evidence in 2012 of a doctor and a dentist involved in facilitating the practice in Birmingham (they were both struck off, but not prosecuted).

However, a convenient confession that placed a charity at the centre of what promised to be a landmark cause célèbre certainly does look contrived (and I note that Ullah is now studying “journalism and public relations”), and it seems to me that Pook’s personal investment in the issue (both as regards her moral outrage at the idea of FGM and her prospects for career advancement) led to her pursuing a case where there was a lack of evidence (even compromising with a “child cruelty” charge, rather than relying on anti-FGM legislation). There may be lessons here for other areas where police work closely with (or act as) activists and moral entrepreneurs.

The fiasco also ought once again to prompt criticism of the CPS, which has been under pressure to bring FGM prosecutions. Infamously, in 2015 a doctor named Dhanuson Dharmasena was prosecuted for having cut and re-stitched scar tissue on a incised woman who was giving birth, even though medically informed commentary ahead of his trial made it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that he had acted properly – and he was duly cleared after 30 minutes of jury deliberation. And last year it was reported that a doctor had spent two years under investigation after publishing an academic paper that described a “cosmetic clitoridectomy” on an adult woman that had been performed for mental health reasons.

Criticism of the Bristol prosecution, including details of its detrimental consequences for the local Somali community, can be found on a Twitter account called Bristol Somali Media.

During the trial, the British version of the alt-right website Breitbart declared the driver guilty via the headline “Somali Father Arranged for Daughter to Have Genitals Mutilated to Stop Her ‘Feeling Sexy'” – the lack of quote marks around the whole thing, or a qualifying “court hears”, was blatant contempt of court.


UPDATE: Channel 4’s Cathy Newman has a blog post on the subject, focusing sympathetically on Pook. Newman writes of Pook receiving “a call which might have changed the course of history”, and later of a “historic moment”, which to my mind tends to support the case that Pook got carried away.

After being told of the lack of forensic evidence, Pook considered what to do next. Newman writes:

Should DCI Pook at this point have given up? Her detractors in the community believe so. But, remembering… all the activists she’s come to know and love, she pressed on.

But the relavent point is not what “her detractors in the community believe”, but the outcome of the trial. Pook is not solely to blame, given that the decision to prosecute ultimately was made by the CPS, but the idea of an officer pursuing a case because of “all the activists she’s come to know and love” rather than on the strength of the evidence is not a good development.

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