Egypt’s first female genital mutilation trial ends in not guilty verdict
A judge's gavel (Shutterstock)

The first doctor to be brought to trial in Egypt on charges of female genital mutilation has been acquitted, raising fears the verdict could lead to FGM being practised with impunity.

Dr Raslan Fadl, who is also an Islamic preacher in a village in the Nile Delta, was acquitted of mutilating Sohair al-Bata’a in June 2013. The 13-year-old died during the procedure.

No reason was given – the verdict was instead scrawled in a ledger rather than announced in the courtroom in Agga, in the country’s north.

Sohair’s father, Mohamed al-Bata’a, was also acquitted of responsibility, despite police and health officials testifying that the child’s parents had admitted taking their daughter to Fadl’s clinic for the procedure.

The doctor was ordered to pay 5001 Egyptian pounds (about £450) to Sohair’s mother after the pair reached an out-of-court settlement.

The case had been pursued rigorously by activists and government officials in the hope that it would send a strong message to doctors that FGM, which was nominally made illegal in 2008, would no longer be tolerated. Instead, a lawyer from a local rights group – the first to take up Sohair’s case – said the verdict had signalled the opposite. “Of course there will be no stopping any doctor after this. Any doctor can do any FGM he wants now,” Atef Aboulenein said.

The lawyer’s colleague, Reda al-Danbouki, said the court’s decision contradicted the evidence presented by the prosecution. Fadl told investigators Sohair had died after a botched operation to remove genital warts. But a report by the national forensic authority “proved what happened in the genital area of the girl was a clear circumcision operation”, Danbouki said.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, regional representative for Equality Now, which campaigned on the case, said: “It’s a very unjust verdict from the judge. It sends a very negative message. It was the first case in the country and we were hoping we could build on it.”

According to a survey by Unicef, an estimated 91% of married Egyptian women between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, 72% by doctors. The research (pdf) suggests support for the practice has declined as 63% of women in the same age bracket supported it in 2008, compared with 82% in 1995.

But in rural areas, where there is sometimes a low standard of education, such as in Sohair’s village of Diyarb Bektaris, FGM is supported by many Muslims and Christians as a way to inhibit women’s supposed appetite for adultery.

Locals say they can easily find doctors willing to operate on girls for the equivalent of £18, and that the risk of prosecution is no deterrent. “We circumcise all our children – they say it’s good for our girls,” said Naga Shawky, 40. “The law won’t stop anything – the villagers will carry on. Our grandfathers did it and so shall we.”

Neither Fadl nor Sohair’s family could be reached for comment. But in an interview with the Guardian in May, the doctor denied FGM had taken place. “What circumcision? There was no circumcision. “It’s all made up by these dogs’ rights people,” he said.

Sohair’s grandmother, also named Sohair, admitted in May that the procedure had indeed occurred but the child’s death was “what God had ordered”.

Equality Now and local lawyers plan to appeal against the verdict.

Additional reporting by Manu Abdo. © Guardian News and Media 2014