Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Khawla Abdel-Haq said she felt like she’d been undressed when Gill Parker Payne pulled the hijab off her head during a flight to Albuquerque in December,
“He violated me, not just took off my scarf,” she said in an interview after the hearing. “I felt like he took off my shirt, my pants in front of everybody.”
In May, Payne, who lives in North Carolina but travels frequently for his sales job, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstructing a person’s free exercise of religious beliefs.
He was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court to a year of probation, including two months of home confinement. U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Yarbrough also ordered Payne to pay a $1,000 fine, along with a nearly $4,000 fee.
Payne, 37, apologized during Tuesday’s hearing and said he has taken online courses to familiarize himself with other religions and recently toured a mosque in hopes of learning more about Islam.
“I’m embarrassed,” he said. “I’m 100 percent embarrassed.”
Payne said he was drunk on the flight and “doesn’t fully remember everything” that happened.
But Abdel-Haq remembers.
“I’m not gonna forget it,” she said. “It’s going to be with me every minute of every day of my life.”
She was sitting in an aisle seat on the Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Albuquerque after a trip to Ohio to help her daughter shop for a wedding dress when Payne approached her about 30 minutes before the flight landed, she said.
“He was standing beside me and I looked up to him and he looked down at me,” she said. “I was minding my own business. He went and he grabbed my scarf, my hijab, and he told me, ‘Take it off. Take that shit off. This is America.’ ”
A shaken Abdel-Haq pulled the scarf back onto her head. She met with police after the flight landed, and the FBI launched an investigation.
Abdel-Haq told Yarbrough that she spent three weeks stuck in her own home after the attack, too afraid to leave.
Even now, she said, she’s too scared to go out on her own. She takes one of her children with her.
“You hurt me. You disrespected me. You violated me,” Abdel-Haq said in court. “I was scared, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Before he announced the sentence, Yarbrough said he had taken into account Abdel-Haq’s willingness to forgive along with the public shaming Payne endured and his recent efforts to learn about world religions.
“I hope that that has made an impact on the way you see the world,” Yarbrough said.
Payne and his attorney, Amber Fayerberg, declined to comment on the sentence after the hearing.
U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said at a news conference that it was “crucial a statement be made through this prosecution.”
“We all as community members want to be treated as we would treat other folks,” he said. “And, in essence, we all want to be treated with human dignity. And in this instance it didn’t happen.”
Abdel-Haq’s attorney, Ahmad Assed, said the family is considering a civil lawsuit, but for now Abdel-Haq is focused on moving past the incident. For now, they hope the case sends a message.
“Religious freedom is important. Tolerance is important,” he said at a news conference. “But also, quick swift justice will come to bear if you do violate somebody’s rights.”