Wife gets 11 years in NY `slavery' case

June 27, 2008 6:11:21 PM PDT
A day after tearfully watching his wife be given 11 years in federal prison for abusing two Indonesian housekeepers held as virtual slaves in their home, an international perfume maker was due before a judge Friday to hear his sentence. Mahender Sabhnani, 51, was expected to receive a lighter punishment despite being convicted along with his wife Varsha last December of a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens.

Prosecutors contended Varsha Sabhnani was primarily responsible for inflicting years of abuse on the poorly educated domestic servants, which they referred to as a case of "modern day slavery."

Her husband was charged with the same crimes, they said, because he allowed the conduct to take place and benefited from the work the women performed in his home; he operated a lucrative perfume business from an office adjacent to the house.

On Thursday, as he sat weeping quietly with two of his children at his side he watched his wife receive an 11-year sentence.

"Eye-opening, to say the least - that things like that go on in our country," U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt said of testimony from the trial, which provided a glimpse into a growing U.S. problem of domestic workers exploited in slave-like conditions.

The victims testified that they were beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives, and forced to climb stairs and take freezing showers for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed.

Both women also were forced to sleep on mats in the kitchen. One arrived in the Sabhnanis' Muttontown home in 2002; the second came in 2005. Their passports and other travel documents were immediately confiscated by the Sabhnanis, the women testified.

Prosecutors said the "punishment that escalated into a cruel form of torture," ended in May 2007, when one of the women fled in the early morning hours of Mother's Day. She wandered into a Dunkin' Donuts wearing nothing but rags and employees called police.

Federal sentencing guidelines had recommended a range of 12 to 15 years in prison for Varsha Sabhnani, who was identified as the one who inflicted the abuse. In addition to prison, she will serve three years probation and pay a $25,000 fine.

"In her arrogance, she treated Samirah and Enung as less than people," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Demetri Jones.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Hoffman said 175 letters were submitted to the court detailing Sabhnani's charitable acts around the world. He called her "a woman who spent a lifetime doing good deeds" and suggested some of the victims' testimony may have been exaggerated.

Hoffman said that around 2004 or 2005, Sabhnani's weight plummeted from 325 pounds to 135. "She did it by starving herself," and suggested a chemical imbalance and significant malnourishment may have contributed to the way she treated her servants. "She had become a very different person."

When his client was asked to speak, she trembled toward a podium with her attorney and said, "I just want to say that I love my children very much."

Her voice trailed away to a whisper as she added: "I was brought to this earth to help people who are in need."

Spatt postponed a decision on the amount of back wages owed to the women. Prosecutors suggested the women were due more than $1.1 million, while defense attorneys said the figure should be much lower. The couple also face fines and are expected to forfeit their home, which is valued at almost $2 million.