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NRI millionaires charged with slavery

An NRI millionaire couple accused of keeping two Indonesian women as slaves in their New York home for years — viciously inflicting abuse for perceived offenses — have been indicted on federal slavery charges.

world Updated: May 26, 2007 02:15 IST

An NRI millionaire couple accused of keeping two Indonesian women as slaves in their luxurious New York home for years — viciously inflicting abuse for perceived offenses — have been indicted on federal slavery charges.

Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 35, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their home in Long Island, New York, were arrested last week after one of their servants was found wandering outside a doughnut shop. The indictment, handed up on Tuesday night, charges the couple with two counts of forced labour and two counts of harbouring illegal residents. The Sabhnanis will be arraigned on the indictment on Thursday.

The defendants, who are naturalised US citizens from India, had their passports confiscated when they were arrested. A magistrate judge in US District Court in Central Islip set bail last week at $3.5 million. Friends and relatives of the couple indicated they would be willing to post bail on their behalf, but as of Wednesday morning, the pair remained in custody. Authorities uncovered the abuse after one of the women was found by police wandering in Syosset, New York, on May 13, wearing only pants and a towel. The woman is believed to have escaped the Sabhnani home when she brought the trash out the night before. Assistant US Attorney Demitri Jones has called the allegations “truly a case of modern-day slavery”.

The women, prosecutors said, were subjected to beatings, had scalding water thrown on them and were forced to repeatedly climb up stairs and take as many as 30 showers in three hours — all as punishment for perceived misdeeds. In one case, prosecutors said, one of the women was forced to eat 25 hot chilli peppers at one time. One of the women also told authorities she was cut behind her ears with a pocket knife and both were forced to sleep on mats in the kitchen. They were fed so little, they claimed, that they were forced to steal food and hide it from their captors. Attorneys for the couple said they intend to fight the allegations. Charles A. Ross, who represents Varsha Sabhnani, said the couple travelled extensively and that the two Indonesian women were free to leave whenever they wished.

Identified in court papers as Samirah and Nona, the women arrived legally in the US on B-1 visas in 2002. The Sabhnanis then confiscated their passports and refused to let them leave their home, authorities said.

The women were promised payments of $200 and $100 a month, but federal prosecutors said they were never given money directly. One of the victims' daughters living in Indonesia was sent $100 a month, prosecutors said.