The author, Cathy Newman, investigates FGM in The FGM Detectives shown at 10pm on Channel 4, Tuesday 27th February. Despite being banned, it is thought that 20,000 girls in the UK are at risk each year.
Detective Chief Inspector Leanne Pook has spent her entire career putting criminals in the dock. Now she has to defend herself in the court of public opinion after the collapse last week of a trial accusing a father of mutilating his daughter. The judge ordered a non-guilty verdict.
It’s been a turbulent week for DCI Pook. But she insists she remains just as determined to help stop the scourge of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Britain as she was six years ago, when she had what she describes as a life-changing encounter with one of the Bristol Somali community, with whom she has since forged close links.
After dedicating much of her career to child protection in Avon & Somerset, she’d been tasked with leading work in the region not only to prevent British women and girls being cut but also to bring the perpetrators to justice.
She’d attended an event at Bristol University, along with 400 other people, where a 15-year-old boy, Mukhtar Hassan, stood up and addressed the audience passionately. Why, he asked, was he, as a boy, concerned about FGM? His answer, DCI Pook recalls, was simple: “He said, ‘I may be a man, but I’m somebody’s son, I’m somebody’s brother, I’m somebody’s friend, and one day I will be somebody’s father.’”
This seasoned police officer says it moved her to tears. “It blew my mind,” she remembers. If 15-year-old Mukhtar had the guts to stand up in front of an audience of hundreds and tell them FGM needed to end, DCI Pook felt she owed it to him – and all the thousands of women and girls mutilated up and down the country – to do everything she possibly could to put a halt to the practice.
For more than three decades, FGM has been illegal in the UK, but no one has ever been successfully prosecuted. One spring day in 2016, DCI Pook took a call which might have changed the course of history.
A Bristol-based charity, Integrate – of which DCI Pook is a trustee – informed her that one of their activists had witnessed a local taxi driver apparently admitting that he’d had his daughter cut.
DCI Pook and her team swung into action with an investigation, which was to prove highly controversial. They identified the taxi driver and discovered he had several children, including a 6-year-old girl. A medical examination carried out by a Bristol-based paediatrician revealed an injury to her clitoris. But it’s so small – a 2-3mm lesion, described as a possible “type 4” cut – that there are immediate question marks over whether, legally, it amounts to mutilation.
It’s the first of many setbacks in the case.
Some have claimed that type 4 FGM should be permitted as a cultural practice. DCI Pook has little patience with that argument, suggesting that because many of the victims of FGM are from black and minority ethnic communities, a subtle kind of racism is at play here. “I just think...if we had a little white girl here and we took off the very tip of her finger, there would be bloody outrage!” she says.
Her colleague Dave Evry agrees: “People need to know that these girls are held down by, often, their mothers and their aunts and their grandmothers. Just because something can be minor, a minor nick or a pinprick or a cut to the clitoris or, you know, parts of the vagina – any cut is painful.”
Muna Hassan, Mukhtar’s sister, a passionate anti-FGM campaigner working for Integrate, highlights the controversy of FGM within the Somali community.
Not all men in the Bristol area are as supportive as her brother. “Men can somehow find a way to be a collective when it comes to talking about the vaginas,” she says, adding that if people feel targeted by the police, they need to start the kind of dialogue she and her family have with DCI Pook. “We have to be really honest to ourselves, FGM is still something that is happening in the UK, and if communities feel like they are being targeted and attacked, have those conversations with the police. Sit down with each other.”
The longer the investigation continued, the harder DCI Pook had to work to keep the community onside, and the police and other agencies were to face questions about the delays.
Then there was a development which the police officer would later describe as a “hammer blow” to the case.
A senior doctor, the UK’s leading FGM specialist, consulted about the photographs from the medical examination of the little girl, thought there was a suggestion of a small lesion but said the images were simply too blurry to be sure.
She carried out her own investigation several weeks later. And this time the doctor couldn’t see the injury.
Evry tears up as he reflects on what they all knew was “a big knock-back”.
“I thought we’d lost it all. I thought the case was out of the water then... And also then you start to question, you know, what have we done? You know, have we unnecessarily disrupted this family, have we unnecessarily put this girl through something she didn’t need to go through?”
Should DCI Pook at this point have given up? Her detractors in the community believe so. But remembering Mukhtar Hassan, and all the activists she’s come to know and love, she pressed on.
The second medical expert’s full report said if there was an injury, it was possible it may have simply healed.
So the case proceeded. After investigating for nearly a year, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) agreed with DCI Pook and her team that there was enough evidence for criminal charges. The CPS advised the police that the limited nature of the potential injury meant that instead of using the dedicated FGM legislation, they should charge the girl’s father with child cruelty, for allowing or arranging for her to be mutilated.
On the first day of the trial, 19th February, nearly two years after she first started investigating the case, DCI Pook felt the burden of what she believed would prove to be a historic moment. “We’ve had 30-something years of FGM legislation and nobody had been prosecuted successfully, and so there’s this kind of overwhelming sense of ‘Oh my word, we’re here now, this has happened. The next four days are really, really massively important'.”
It would turn out to be a prophetic comment.
As the prosecution outlined the evidence, the judge soon made clear he was concerned that the account relied on was "internally inconsistent". Sami Ullah, the key witness said that the taxi driver and father of the little girl had described FGM more broadly as “very wrong” and had suggested to Mr Ullah that his daughter had only had the “small” cut. The judge said there was a risk of misunderstanding as the defendant's "English was broken". While the judge accepted that Mr Ullah gave his evidence honestly, he stated that he had been “influenced” by his views as an activist at Integrate.
The case began to unravel.
The judge directed the jury to acquit the taxi driver, saying he found the case against him “deeply troubling”. The medical evidence, he said, was “wholly inconclusive at its highest”. The equipment used in the first examination was 15 years old, and the photographs so blurry they were “of no value clinically or forensically”.
The CPS said they accepted the decision but argued that this was “an unusual and unprecedented case”. They insisted there was sufficient evidence to prosecute, and the case was in the public interest.
Just days after the acquittal, the links with the community, which DCI Pook had spent years nurturing, exposed her to scrutiny. Questions were asked about why she’d been allowed to lead the case and interview the only witness, despite their mutual involvement with Integrate. The local MP suggested there was a conflict of interest – an allegation DCI Pook denies. Her appointment as a trustee for Integrate was cleared by Avon & Somerset Police.
DCI Pook is bitterly disappointed with the outcome of the case. But this isn’t the end of the story, which began with that speech by 15-year-old Mukhtar Hassan.
“Very soon after I got involved in this work, I knew that my commitment to ending FGM would last a lifetime. While this issue continues to affect women and girls, I will get out of bed every single day determined to do everything I possibly can to stop it,” she says.
Thirty-three years after FGM was first outlawed in the UK, a successful prosecution will have to wait. Just how long depends on the determination and trust of people like Mr Hassan, and the dedication of officers like DCI Pook.
Within weeks, a London man will face trial, accused of inflicting FGM. DCI Pook and her colleagues will be watching that case with interest.
The FGM Detectives airs on Tuesday 27th February at 10pm on Channel 4.