Indian American gets jail after wife’s sentencing for slavery

June 28th, 2008 - 1:59 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, June 28 (IANS) An Indian American millionaire has been sentenced to over three years in jail, a day after his wife was given 11 years in prison for virtually enslaving two Indonesian domestic workers in their mansion here. US District Judge Arthur Spatt said Friday in Central Islip court, Long Island, that Mahender Sabhnani did not inflict physical injury on the two women, “but he permitted all of these things to go on - these dreadful things - he had to know”.

Before he was sentenced to three years and four months in jail, media reports said that Sabhnani, 51, pleaded for mercy on behalf of his four adult children and asked, through his attorney, to be sentenced to home confinement instead of prison.

His three daughters are in their 20s and his teenaged son is about to go to college in Washington D.C.

The judge postponed until July 11 a hearing on whether the couple must forfeit their Muttontown home valued at over $2 million.

Sabhnani ran a successful perfume business under the company name Eternal Love Parfums Corp.

Varsha Sabhnani, 46, was sentenced Thursday in the same court. In addition, she will serve three years probation and pay a fine of $25,000. She was convicted with her husband in December 2007 on 12 counts that included forced labour, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harbouring aliens.

The victims, identified as Samirah and Enung, had testified that they were beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives, and forced to take freezing showers as punishment for crimes like taking leftovers from trash cans because they were hungry.

Judge Spatt called the testimony “eye-opening, to say the least - that things like that go on in our country”.

Prosecutors contended the accusations amounted to a “modern-day slavery” case. They said the maids were subjected to “punishment that escalated into a cruel form of torture”, which ended in May 2007, when one of the women fled and wearing nothing but rags came to the attention of workers at a neighbourhood restaurant who called the police.

The Indian American community is not too happy with the jail term slapped on Varsha.

Bharat Jotwani, a friend of the Sabhnanis who was in the court for Varsha’s sentencing, told IANS: “The family is very disappointed and upset with the harsh sentence. Eleven years is a long time.”

Jotwani, who organises mega entertainment events such as the forthcoming ‘Unforgettable’ Bachchans show in New York and New Jersey, believes the judge and jury were influenced by the media blitz in the case. The couple were tax-paying, model citizens, he said.

Naresh M. Gehi, a prominent lawyer, also commented that the punishment in the Sabhnanis’ case has been more than they deserved.

One of the Indonesian women arrived in the Sabhnanis’ home in 2002, the second in 2005. Their families in Indonesia were paid about $100 a month each. No cash was given to the maids.

The judge postponed a decision on the amount of back wages owed by the couple to the women. Prosecutors suggested the women were due more than $1.1 million while defence attorneys said the figure should be much lower.

The defence, which intends to appeal, contended the two women concocted the story as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. They also argued the housekeepers practised witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of a self-mutilation ritual.

Sabhnani, from Hyderabad, had married Varsha, from Indonesia, in 1981 and soon after they came to the US.

Their eldest daughter, Pooja, 22, told the New York Times that she was reconciled to prison terms for her parents. “We’re trying to prepare to take hold of the business ourselves.”

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