An SAA plane at OR Tambo in Kepmton Park Gauteng. Photo: Leon Nicholas

Durban - A flight from India to South Africa turned into a trip from hell for a Pietermaritzburg woman who claims she was sexually assaulted by the man sitting next to her. He was with a group on their way to run the Comrades Marathon.

The man, an Indian national, was arrested at a Durban hotel shortly after he finished the Comrades on Sunday. He had completed the race just before the cut-off time.

The man was transferred in police custody to Gauteng. The date and location of his first court appearance are not yet known. By law he can only be identified once he has pleaded.

The woman, who is in her twenties, cannot be named as she is the alleged victim of a sexual assault.

She said she was angry that the airline, South African Airways, did nothing more than move her and ask if she wanted them to call the police.

Explaining the incident, the woman said she and the man made “petty conversation” about the weather and his excitement at running the marathon and then she said she went to sleep.

“The lights went off, only the ones in the aisle stayed on. I wrapped myself in the blanket and slept… I felt someone touching me in an inappropriate area and woke up. He was staring at me, but he was still touching me.”

The woman said she screamed and then sought assistance from the flight supervisors, who confronted the passenger.

“He apologised and said that he thought I was his wife. He said he had a child at home. He said he was unconscious. But how can his eyes be open and his hands moving if he is unconscious,” she asked angrily

The SAA staff asked if she wanted them to contact the police on landing at OR Tambo International Airport, but she said she was traumatised and wanted to get home to Durban.

“Why could they not arrest him? If you can arrest someone for smoking, surely you can arrest someone for this? Families are often split up on flights and children often fly alone. People often take sleeping tablets on flights. This can happen to anyone,” she said.

When met by her parents at King Shaka International Airport in Durban they immediately reported the matter to the police.

“I then went to the Comrades offices to report it and asked that the man not be allowed to run in the race. But they said although they sympathised with me they could not do that.

“He should not have been able to participate. This is my country. He came from India to run a race in my country and abused me.

“The problem is that in India 80 percent of sexual crimes go unreported. He probably thought I would not say anything.”

Dave Dixon, the chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association, said he could not comment on the issue other than to say the incident needed to be investigated.

“We can’t get involved. She has opened a criminal case.”

SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said the airline had launched an internal investigation, which would involve requesting flight reports and interviewing all parties concerned.

“Although we are dealing with allegations at this stage, SAA views the matter in a serious light and will co-operate fully with the law enforcement agencies in a supportive role. Our internal security division does not have the mandate to fully investigate matters of this nature.”

However, should there be evidence that SAA staff did not follow procedures when attending to the incident, disciplinary steps would be instituted, he said,

“We expect all passengers to observe our conditions of carriage. Any conduct at variance with these conditions and which amounts to suspected criminality must be reported to the police.”

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The Mercury