South Asian couple arrested for keeping slaves
May 16, 2007 - 2:26:40 PM

New York, May 16 - A wealthy South Asian couple, who run an international perfume business in the US, have been arrested for keeping two Indonesian slaves at their Long Island house for the past five years.

The couple, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, were detained Tuesday and charged under a federal law that makes it illegal to force someone to work under threat of violence. Both, however, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The case came to light when one of the women, identified only as Samirah, was seen wandering Sunday morning, wearing only pants and wrapped in a towel. Her face was bruised, and when shop employees tried to communicate with her, she made gestures of slapping herself and uttering what sounded to them like the word 'master', prosecutors said.

The police took Samirah to Nassau University Medical Center. With the help of an Indonesian translator, Samirah told them that she and a second woman, identified as Nona, were forced by the Sabhnanis to work long hours, given little food, forced to sleep on mats on the floor, kept hidden when company came and threatened with violence, the New York Times reported.

And Samirah said she was frequently beaten up by Varsha.

'No one would ever think that human beings were being brought into the US and held for slave labour, beaten and tortured in a beautiful mansion right here in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods on Long Island,' said federal prosecutor Demetri Jones.

Prosecutors alleged that the two Indonesian women were beaten with broomsticks, cut behind the ears with a knife, burnt with scalding water, made to walk up and down stairs as much as 150 times in a row, and were once forced to eat 25 extremely hot chilli peppers.

Pictures showing bruises and cuts inflicted on one of the women were also shown to the court.

If convicted, each of the Sabhnanis face a sentence of 17-22 years in prison.

The South Asian couple run a lucrative perfume distributing business from their home.

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