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.
Mohammad Masroor, 51, was found guilty by a Wayne County jury on May 2 of 15 counts of criminal sexual conduct in 2000 against three female relatives, ages 10, 12, and 13 at the time of the assaults. 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.
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; he was acquitted last year in Canada 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 Rahal Khalil, 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, Khalil 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,” Khalil 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 United States on a religious workers visa. In Detroit, he taught at a non-profit 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 was 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 them. A small percentage of Muslim women wear the niqab; locally, some women in parts of 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.
Before the trial started in April, Foster had 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 niqab when testifying. Their ruling came out of a 2006 case in Hamtramck where a Muslim woman from Detroit, Ginnah Muhammad, refused to removed 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 right to require women to show their face when testifying.
Masroor faces a maximum sentence of life in prison at his Wednesday sentencing.