CHICAGO: A Pakistani physician pleaded not guilty Tuesday to allegations that he inappropriately touched a girl seated next to him on an American Airlines flight from New York City to Chicago.
Muhammad Asif Chaudhry is accused of moving from his assigned seat to a seat next to the Iowa girl, who was traveling alone in July as part of the airline's unaccompanied-minor program.
The girl sent frantic text messages from the plane to her mother, explaining that a man had touched her genitals and that she could not escape because the seat belt light was on, according to the federal complaint.
“I want to get away,” one text said. A few seconds later, she added, “Mommy, I'm scared."
The mother fainted when she got her daughter's texts, family attorney Brett Beatty has said.
Chaudhry, 57, was in the US to visit acquaintances in Oklahoma.
He pleaded not guilty to two counts of abusive sexual contact with a child between 12 and 16. Each count carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
The doctor is free on $100,000 bail.
Among the conditions of his release is that he cannot fly, so he drove the 16 hours from Oklahoma to Chicago for Tuesday's arraignment.
The arraignment comes days after the girl's parents filed a federal lawsuit in Des Moines, suing Chaudhry and American Airlines.
Beatty said the airline should have done more to protect the girl, including putting her in a seat where she could be easily monitored.
American Airlines spokesman Josh Freed said in a statement last week that the airline “cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe travel experience for them."
According to the complaint, the girl had been seated next to a window with no one in the two seats to her left, when Chaudhry moved up a row and sat in one of those seats.
At one point, the girl fell asleep with her legs on a seat between them, then awoke to feel Chaudhry legs intertwined with hers under a blanket.
When Chaudhry got up to use the restroom, the girl complained to a flight attendant, who moved her to the first-class section. Authorities detained Chaudhry when the plane touched down in Chicago.
Neither Chaudhry nor his attorney spoke to reporters after Tuesday's arraignment.
Chaudhry told agents that he moved up to the girl's row to give passengers in his section more room, according to the complaint. He said he may have inadvertently touched the girl's arm when he asked her to close the window shade.