Monday, June 23, 2008

NY: Couple's Downfall Is Culminating in Sentencing in Long Island Slavery Case

Varsha Sabhnani, left, and her husband, Mahender, after their arrests in May 2007. Two of their servants testified about being starved and beaten in the couple’s home in Muttontown, N.Y.

MUTTONTOWN, N.Y. — With their courtship complete and their arranged marriage only a few weeks old, Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani set out for New York from India in 1981, leaving behind their wealthy families and households with live-in servants.

By American standards, they did not have much money. But they started a perfume company and embarked on a typical exurban migration — from Queens to Hicksville to Muttontown, where they moved into Muttontown Knolls, a new subdivision of 88 half-acre plots that offered three models of houses.

Theirs was a modern Long Island chalet: about 5,900 square feet, with diagonal cedar siding, a sharply sloping roof and two bronze lions standing guard before their front stoop.

Working from home and selling fortified-strength fragrances to customers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the Sabhnanis made millions. “It started in our basement and just kind of grew from there,” said Pooja Sabhnani, 23, the oldest of their four children. “My parents worked incredibly hard.”

Eventually, they brought servants from Indonesia, where Varsha Sabhnani had been raised. On May 13, 2007, the police were called to a Dunkin’ Donuts in Syosset, N.Y., where one of the domestic workers had turned up. Her face was bruised and she wore only pants and a towel.

When the Dunkin’ Donuts employees tried to talk to the 51-year-old woman, identified as Samirah — like many Indonesians, she uses only one name — she made gestures of hitting herself and uttered what sounded to them like the word “master.”

Immigration officials who searched the Sabhnanis’ house found Samirah’s co-worker, Enung, then 46, hiding in a closet.

Speaking through an interpreter, the two women described for authorities an existence on Long Island that sounded very much like slave labor. They spoke of starvation, beatings and torture. Their compensation of $100 a month for working 17-hour days with no days off amounted to a wage of roughly 20 cents an hour.

Mr. Sabhnani, 52, and Mrs. Sabhnani, 46, will be sentenced on Thursday and Friday, respectively, in federal court. They were convicted late last year on 12 counts, including forced labor, peonage and harboring aliens. Lawyers involved in the case estimated last week that Mrs. Sabhnani, who was found to have physically harmed the workers and is now in jail, might receive 12 to 15 years in prison. They said that Mr. Sabhnani, who is under house arrest, might be sentenced to five or six years...


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