Detroit Muslim Cleric Says Victims Covering Faces at Trial Violated His Right to Confront Them

From the Detroit Free Press:

"A Muslim leader convicted of raping three young girls in Detroit is to be sentenced Wednesday in a case that features a constitutional debate over whether women who wear an Islamic face veil should be allowed to testify with it on.

The case deals with two potentially conflicting freedoms protected under the U.S. Constitution: freedom of religion and the right of accusers to confront witnesses in court.

On May 2, a Wayne County jury found Mohammad Masroor, 51, guilty of 15 counts of criminal sexual conduct in 2000 against three female relatives who were 10, 12 and 13 years old at the time. His attorney maintains the imam didn’t get a fair trial because some of his witnesses testified wearing a niqab, an Islamic face veil that covers up a woman’s entire head except for a narrow slit that shows only her eyes.

The case may be the first in Michigan and the U.S. where a judge allowed women wearing a niqab to testify, say attorneys involved in the case. Last year, judges in England and Canada ruled in two cases that women could not.

Prosecutors said Masroor used his influence as a religious leader to take advantage of the girls while he was tutoring them in Islamic studies. Eight victims testified in the case, all of them relatives. In Canada last year, he was acquitted of sexually assaulting five other relatives while he was imam of a mosque in Toronto.

[']He would use his religious knowledge to manipulate these victims,['] said Khalil Rahal, assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County, who handled the Detroit case. [']He was put on a pedestal ... as a respected imam.[']

Masroor exploited the conservative religious views of the girls to keep on abusing them, Rahal said.

[']He would say things to the victims like: ‘If it ever came out you weren’t a virgin ... they would stone you or kill you. ... Nobody in the world would believe you because of who I am.’[']

Masroor escalated the attacks on his victims gradually over time, starting with “just touching them ... to kissing on the cheeks, kissing on the lips; groping the breasts turned into fondling the private areas, and then full penetration,” Rahal said.

Masroor was seen as a trusted leader in the community because of his knowledge of Islam and its holy book, the Quran.

Born in Bangladesh to a noted imam, he memorized the Quran by the age of 9, became an imam at 24, and immigrated to the U.S. on a religious workers visa. In Detroit, he taught at a nonprofit religious school in his brother’s home, where he targeted his victims, according to prosecutors.

Masroor’s attorney, Mitch Foster, said he was disappointed in the verdict.

Masroor [']appears to be a good man, a very devout religious man who’s always maintained his innocence, and I have no reason to conclude otherwise,['] Foster said. [']He seems very sincere, and he testified in his own defense and denied all wrongdoing.[']

He said he may file an appeal citing the judge’s niqab ruling.

Masroor, his family, and the community he is from were highly conservative Sunni Muslims who believe a woman should be covered entirely except for her eyes when in the presence of men not related to her. A small percentage of Muslim women wear the niqab; locally, some women in Hamtramck and the south end of Dearborn wear them.

Masroor was able to get the girls alone in part because their mother — who was not related by blood to Masroor — could not be in his presence unless fully covered, Rahal said.

Before the trial started in April, Foster asked the court to require any female testifying against Masroor not to wear the niqab. Foster cited the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says in part that the accused have the right [']to be confronted with the witnesses against him.[']

If females wear a niqab, the accused are [']denied the right to fully cross-examine and confront the witnesses,['] Foster said he argued.

In 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court voted 5-2 to amend a state rule and begin permitting judges to decide whether women could wear a niqab when testifying. Their ruling came out of a 2006 case in Hamtramck in which a Muslim woman from Detroit, Ginnah Muhammad, refused to remove her niqab when a Hamtramack judge asked her to in order to testify.

It involved a small-claims case she had brought over a disputed repair bill with a car rental company. Muhammad filed a lawsuit, saying her constitutional rights were violated, but the Michigan Supreme Court said judges have the discretion to require women to show their faces when testifying or not.

In court, Rahal opposed Foster’s request and said that if a judge doesn’t allow some women to testify with a niqab on, it would be [']sending a message to criminals everywhere that they can target women with niqabs or burqas because they would have a hard time testifying in court.[']

Also, Rahal said requiring the women to show their faces was another way for Masroor [']to re-victimize the victims,['] because the victims feel being looked at by a man — especially one who assaulted them — is hurtful.

[']This was his one last chance to undress them,['] Rahal said.

Moreover, showing the eyes is enough for a witness to confront his accuser, Rahal said, noting that eyes have often been described as a [']window to the soul.[']

Judge Michael Hathaway agreed with prosecutors and said the victims would be allowed to wear a niqab while testifying. Ultimately, two women testified while wearing it. Four did not. A total of eight victims, both male and female, testified against Masroor during the trial; all of them are relatives.

[']No child came forward other than his own family members, and he had access to children around the world,['] noted Foster, his attorney.

After immigrating to the U.S., Masroor lived in New York before moving to Detroit in 2000 and then Hamtramck. He moved to Florida in 2003 and then the Toronto area in 2008, where he was imam of the Baitual Mukarram Islamic Society. Prosecutors say he abused children in Wayne County, Florida, and Canada. His wife testified against him in the Detroit case, Rahal said.

Masroor traveled often as an imam, teaching in Germany, France, Hungary, Sri Lanka and Singapore, according to a report in the Toronto Star after he was arrested in 2011.

[']He taught students the Quran,['] Foster said. [']He’s very knowledgeable. He was a teacher in schools and mosques.[']

Masroor could get a maximum sentence of life in prison at his Wednesday sentencing."