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NY couple jailed in slavery case

Federal judge orders jail to an Indian born couple, both US citizens, for keeping two Indonesian women as slaves.

world Updated: May 26, 2007 12:48 IST

A New York couple accused of keeping two Indonesian women as slaves for more than four years were ordered jailed by a federal judge on Thursday after prosecutors argued they might flee the United States.

Varsha Mahender Sabhnani 35, and her husband Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Central Islip, New York, after being indicted in what prosecutors have called a "case of modern-day slavery."

Prosecutors argued the Indian-born couple, both US citizens, were flight risks because they have relatives overseas and a perfume business that operates in Singapore and Saudi Arabia.

Records of wire transfers also showed that more than $ 850,000 had been sent to Mahender Sabhnani's brother in the United Arab Emirates, prosecutors said in a bail letter.

The couple was indicted on Tuesday on charges of forced labor and harboring illegal residents. They face up to 20 years in prison.

The women, whose identities have not been revealed, were discovered when one escaped and was found several weeks ago dressed in pants and a towel by employees of a doughnut store. She began slapping her hands toward her face and appeared to say "master," court papers said.

The woman was treated at a local hospital for injuries to her ears, face, arms, neck, chest and back that she told authorities were caused by torture inflicted by Varsha Sabhnani.

That included beatings with a stick, scalding hot water, 30 showers to be taken in a row and climbing a set of stairs 150 times within a short period, court papers said.

The same woman also told authorities she was cut with a knife behind her ears and forced to eat 25 hot peppers at once.

The second woman was found by authorities in the home hiding in a closet. Both women were forced to sleep on mats and had to steal food to get enough to eat, court papers said.

The couple brought the women from Indonesia in 2002 and promised to pay them $ 200 a month for housekeeping duties. But the only payment made was $100 a month to the daughter of one of the victims living in Indonesia, according to the papers.