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Couple Convicted in NY Slavery Case


Posted on Dec 21, 2007

On Monday, a jury convicted a millionaire couple of enslaving two Indonesian women they brought to their mansion to work as housekeepers.

Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45, were each convicted of all charges in a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude, and harboring aliens.

Prosecutors said the women were forced to work 18 or more a day and subjected to repeated psychological and physical abuse.

The Sabhnanis, who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their Muttontown home on Long Island's Gold Coast and have four children, could face up to 40 years in prison. However, attorneys predicted the punishment would be considerably less. He is from India, and she is from Indonesia, but both are naturalized U.S. citizens

One of the couple's daughters collapsed in the front row as the verdict was read, prompting the judge to clear the courtroom while medical personnel attended to her.

Defense attorney said he would appeal. "Apparently, the jury was taken by the histrionics ..." of the Indonesian women, he said.

Prosecutors called it a case of "modern-day slavery." Assistant U.S. Attorney said in closing arguments the poorly educated women worked as housekeepers for $100 or $150 a month - all of which was sent to their relatives back home.

Prosecutors said the women, known only as Samirah and Enung, were subjected to "punishment that escalated into a cruel form of torture" that ended when one of the women fled on Mother's Day.

Allegations of abuse included beatings with brooms and umbrellas, slashing with knives, being made to repeatedly climb stairs and take freezing cold showers as punishment for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed.

Samirah, the woman who fled the house in May, said she was forced to eat dozens of chili peppers and then was forced to eat her own vomit when she failed to digest the peppers, prosecutors said.

"This did not happen in the 1800s," Prosecutors said. "This happened in the 21st century."

Enung testified that Samirah's nude body once was covered in plastic wrapping tape on orders from Varsha Sabhnani, who then instructed Enung to rip it off. "When I pulled it off, she was screaming," the housekeeper said through an interpreter before breaking down in tears on the witness stand.

The Sabhnanis' defense attorneys contended the two women concocted the story of abuse as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. They argued the housekeepers practiced witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of an Indonesian self-mutilation ritual. They also said the couple went on frequent vacations that would have given the two women ample opportunity to flee.

The Sabhnanis spent nearly three months in jail until a judge approved a bail package that required them to post $4.5 million and pay an estimated $10,000 a day for security monitoring while they were kept under house arrest.

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