Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lateef Mungin, Oct. 22, 2006
A father stands accused of the unthinkable: brutally cutting his daughter’s genitals.
The girl was only 2.
Monday, activists from all over the world will be focused on a Gwinnett County courtroom as Khalid Adem, accused of cruelty to a child and aggravated battery for allegedly circumcising his daughter, goes on trial.
Adem, 30, was charged with aggravated battery and cruelty to children more than three years ago and, if convicted, could face 40 years in prison. He was born in Ethiopia, where circumcision is a common procedure for young girls.
Adem’s trial may be a landmark case for health and human rights activists fighting against the African custom they call genital mutilation. But for those close to the victim, this trial is about vindication and healing for a little girl who was forced to endure unbearable pain.
“When I saw that child I saw myself. I could see the pain in her eyes,” said Soraya Mire, a filmmaker and activist who was circumcised when she was 13 in Somalia. Mire is known for her 1994 documentary “Fire Eyes” in which she chronicled her struggles after having the procedure.
Police say Adem circumcised his daughter with scissors in his Duluth apartment, while someone else held the girl’s legs.
Authorities said the circumcision occurred sometime in 2001 but the mother didn’t discover it until two years later. The mother told police she learned about it while arguing with Adem about female circumcision. The mother told police that she told Adem she didn’t want that to happen to their daughter, but Adem implied the circumcision had already occurred.
The mother went to a doctor who confirmed that the girl had been circumcised. The girl then told Gwinnett authorities that her father had done it. He was arrested in March 2003.
Adem has said through his defense attorney W. Mark Hill that he was innocent. Hill said the allegations stem from a bitter divorce and custody battle the couple was going through at the time. Hill has said the family of the girl’s mother, Fortunate Adem, also is from Africa and could have performed the circumcision.
Georgia law changed
The African practice of female circumcision has been denounced for decades by health and human rights activists. In some areas in Africa, it is considered a coming-of-age ritual.
Opponents claim the procedure, which may involve the removal of the clitoris or all of the external genitalia, is extremely painful, medically unnecessary and unsafe. It is illegal in the United States and has been condemned by the United Nations.
The centuries-old practice is performed for many reasons, including to curtail sex drive and preserve virginity. It also is a prerequisite for marriage in some cultures, experts say.
It is difficult to document the number of female circumcision prosecutions in the United States. Although Congress passed a law in 1996, many states still do not have their own laws forbidding the practice. But experts who follow the issue say arrests for female circumcision are rare.
“To our knowledge, this was the first documented case of [female circumcision] in the United States,” said Bien-Aime, whose organization, which has offices in New York, London and Africa, has been following the issue since 1992. “We will be monitoring the trial and hope that it will help bring awareness to the issue.”
Adem’s arrest also had an impact on Georgia law. In 2003, there was no state law in Georgia that addressed female circumcision. That’s why Adem was charged with aggravated battery and cruelty to children.
If Khalid Adem had been arrested after the new law was in place, he could have faced an additional 20 years for the genital mutilation charge.
Fortunate Adem refused to comment for this article but has said her daughter suffered severe pain since the circumcision.
“Her whole life has been changed,” she said. “She is going to be traumatized psychologically. Parts of her body have been taken away from her without her consent. They need to look at this child the same way they would if she had been raped.”
Father claims innocence
Hill will handle the defense case and plans to call eight to 10 witnesses. He said he is trying to get three of Adem’s sisters to Gwinnett from Ethiopia to testify that they had not been circumcised.
Another key piece of evidence will be the taped interview of the victim in which she told Gwinnett authorities that Adem cut her with scissors. It’s unknown whether the girl, now 7, will be called to testify.
Gwinnett Assistant District Attorney Marty First will handle the prosecution’s case. First declined to comment or give any details about the case.
Hill said there are major problems with the prosecution’s case and that Adem was arrested primarily on the word of the then-2-year-old girl who could have been coached by a mother desperate to get custody. Another problem in the case, Hill said, is that the alleged circumcision, which took place in 2001, wasn’t discovered or reported to police until two years later.
Khalid Adem immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia when he was 16, Hill said. Fortunate Adem moved to this country from South Africa when she was 6, according to court documents. The two met at Georgia Perimeter College in Clarkston. The couple was married, and their daughter was born on Sept. 8, 1999. The couple had a contentious marriage and was divorced by August 2003.
Fortunate Adem was awarded full custody of the child. Adem was not granted visitation rights.