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Treating maids as slaves

An Indian-American couple is convicted for abusing two Indonesian women they brought to their mansion to work as maids.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2007 00:38 IST

A millionaire Indian-American couple was convicted on Monday for enslaving and abusing two Indonesian women they brought to their mansion to work as housekeepers.

The jury held India-born Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Indonesian-born Varsha, 45, guilty of subjecting the two housemaids to repeated psychological and physical abuse.

The couple, naturalised US citizens, could face up to 40 years in prison after both were convicted in a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labour, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens.

The allegations against the couple included forcing the Indonesian maids, known only as Samirah and Enung, to work over 18 hours a day, beatings with brooms and umbrellas, slashings with knives and being made to repeatedly climb stairs and take freezing showers.

The Sabhnanis’ case had received wide publicity in the US as prosecutors called it a rare instance of “modern day slavery”. The New York tabloid press dubbed Varsha ‘Cruella’ after the vamp in 101 Dalmatians.

The Sabhnanis operate a worldwide perfume business out of their Muttontown home in Long Island and have four daughters.

One of their daughters fainted while the jury’s verdict was being read out, prompting the judge to clear the courtroom while she was given medical attention.

Defence attorney Jeffrey Hoffman said he would appeal. “Apparently, the jury was taken by the histrionics” of the Indonesian women, he said.

The Sabhnanis’ defence attorneys contended that the housemaids concocted the story of abuse as a way of escaping for more lucrative opportunities. They argued that the two women practised witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of an Indonesian self-mutilation ritual.