Indian American woman gets 11 year jail for slavery

June 27th, 2008 - 12:53 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, June 27 (IANS) An Indian origin woman, who along with her millionaire husband was found guilty of keeping two Indonesian housekeepers as virtual slaves in their mansion here, has been sentenced to 11 years in jail - a punishment the Indian American community has found too harsh. Varsha Sabhnani, 46, was sentenced Thursday in the US District Court in Central Islip, Long Island. In addition to the prison term, she will serve three years probation and pay a fine of $25,000.

She was convicted along with her husband, Mahendra Sabhnani, in December 2007 on 12 counts that included forced labour, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harbouring aliens.

Mahendra, 52, was scheduled to be sentenced Friday, and was expected to get a more lenient sentence for letting the maids at their Muttontown mansion be ill-treated by his wife.

The family-owned Eternal Love Parfums Corp ran a worldwide perfume business.

The Indian American community, which has followed the case with dismay and disbelief, 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.

For Mahendra, he expected a jail term of no more than 2-3 years.

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

Mohini Mittal, a long-time resident in a township near Muttontown, said: “I cannot believe that so much went on for so long in the Sabhnani residence and the neighbours didn’t get to hear anything.”

Mittal said if it was not a trumped up case, then the guilty should be given a just punishment. Turning philosophical, the follower of Radhasoami faith said: “We come from a country of spirituality and humanity and we should consider other human beings as brothers and sisters and treat them with great love, respect and dignity.”

The victims, identified as Samirah and Enung, were apparently not treated humanely. The 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 Arthur 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.

One of the 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.

The Sabhnanis also face fines and could be forced to forfeit their home, which is valued at almost $2 million.

Sabhnani, from Hyderabad, had married Varsha, from Indonesia, in 1981 and soon after they came to the US. They have three daughters and one son.

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

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