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Rediff.com  » News » NY slavery case: Indian-American couple to lose home

NY slavery case: Indian-American couple to lose home

December 19, 2007 00:40 IST

A federal court jury that found Varsha Sabhnani and her husband Mahendar guilty of slavery charges voted to take away their upscale home in Muttontown, Long Island, New York.

The vote was unanimous. "We did our job just as we were instructed. The verdict is in," the jury foreman said.

Both were convicted of 12 charges on December 17. They face up to 20 years in prison.

The defence vowed to appeal the verdict. "We are very disappointed in the verdict. The jury was taken with the histrionics of the Indonesian women," commented Jeffrey Hoffman, who appeared for Varsha and Stephen Scaring, who appeared for Mahendar.

"Forced labor and servitude, whether performed in a field, a factory, or a home, offends human dignity. As this case demonstrates, these crimes are not just remnants from a dark and distant past, but a reality that must be confronted today. Human trafficking investigations and prosecutions are, and will remain, a priority for this office, the Department of Justice, and local law enforcement. We will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute those who would treat their employees as mere chattel," US Attorney Benton Campbell said in a statement after the verdict.

"After recruiting two Indonesian women to come to the United States to work as domestic servants in their Muttontown, Long Island home, the defendants exploited those victims through beatings, threats, and other degrading mistreatment in order to keep them in a condition of servitude for years," Campbell said.

The prosecution accused the Sabhnanis, who operate a multi-million dollar perfume business from their Muttontown home, of enslaving and torturing two Indonesian maids, named only as Samirrah, 51, and Enung, 45.

The defence said the women concocted the stories to continue to live in the US. The defence also pointed out the inconsistencies in the testimonies of the women.

But the jury agreed with the prosecution. The charges two counts of peonage (a form of debt slavery); two counts of forced labour; two counts of harboring of illegal immigrants; and two counts of document servitude. Other counts were, conspiracies to commit both peonage, forced labor, harboring and document servitude.

Assistant US Attorney Mark Lesko told the court that the women were forced to eat vomit, scalded, stabbed and made to take freezing showers.

But Defence Attorney Scaring said, "Nobody saw anything except what Enung and Samirah wanted them to see. This craziness, this imagination, this making up things isn't that what this case is all about?"

Sabhnanis were arrested in May after Samirah was found wandering outside a doughnut shop in Seacacus. Later Enung was found hiding in the basement in the Sabhnani home.

The defence claimed that the maids practiced witchcraft and may have hurt themselves as part of kerokan, an Indonesian self-mutilation ritual. They showed a letter written by Enung asking her relations in Indonesia to do witchcraft so that Varsha gets hurt.

The defence also noted that initially Samirah said that the wound behind her ear was inflicted by Varsha using a knife.

Later she changed it and said Varsha inflicted it using her nail.

Scaring and Hoffman pointed out that the whole incident was a scheme made by Enung and the superstitious Samirah went along with her. Samirrah had believed that Varsha had cast a spell that killed her son in Indonesia.

"Would you want someone in your house who was dressed in ragsĀ and smelled?" Hoffman asked the jurors.

The Sabhnanis are under house arrest after being released on $4.5 million bail. They are paying an estimated $10,000 a day for round-the-clock security.

On Monday, when the jury pronounced the Sabhnanis guilty, Varsha and her daughter Dakshina fainted and were taken to hospital and were released later.

The jury at US Federal Court in Central Islip, New York, deliberated for two days and two hours before arriving at the guilty verdict.

"We didn't do anything to anybody. How could this happen to us?," Tina, one of Sabhnani's three daughters said.

A Correspondent in New York