A man accused of sexually abusing a woman sleeping in an airplane seat next to him on a cross-country flight is an ethnic Kurd who fled Turkey years ago and wouldn't return there if released on bail, his lawyer said Tuesday in disputing the charges against him and questioning prosecutors' version of events.
The U.S. attorney for New Jersey charged the man, Bawer Aksal, in a criminal complaint last week with sexual abuse. Prosecutors said a passenger seated next to Aksal on an Aug. 20 flight from Phoenix to Newark said she'd awoken from a nap to find his hands inside her shirt touching her breasts and inside her shorts sexually abusing her.
Defense attorney Robert DeGroot said Tuesday that Aksal denied abusing the woman and disputed claims in the criminal complaint that he had admitted to authorities that he had touched the woman but had told them it was consensual. DeGroot argued that the scenario, on a crowded plane, was highly unlikely.
"If I was on a plane and someone reached into my trousers, I would wake up and complain vociferously," DeGroot argued to U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo during a bail hearing in Newark federal court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Harris countered that the woman, whom prosecutors have not named because of the nature of the charges, did wake up and protest, slamming down the arm rest between her and Aksal and alerting the flight crew, which arranged to take Aksal into custody when the plane landed at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Harris said the woman, who dozed off wearing headphones and with a jacket draped across her lap, awoke to find her clothing ripped, her bra pulled down to her waist and Aksal breathing heavily and whispering for her to kiss him.
"This was a crime of violence," Harris told the judge. "An egregious act in a commercial airliner with over 100 potential witnesses."
Harris, in arguing for Aksal to be held on bail, said that as a Turkish-born U.S. citizen with few stateside assets and at least two passports and facing up to life in prison on the sex abuse charge, he was a flight risk with a strong motive to flee to Turkey.
DeGroot countered that his client had written articles critical of the Turkish government and had no desire to return to Turkey, where Kurdish rebels are fighting for autonomy in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. He said his client had lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years with no criminal record or problems of any kind.
The judge ordered Aksal's bail hearing continued for Thursday.