Slave-labor defendant remains free

Wife remains in jail
May 19, 2008 5:07:44 PM PDT
An irate federal judge complained Monday that he was misled by a man convicted with his wife in a modern-day slavery case, but allowed him to remain free on $4.5 million bail until he is sentenced next month."Mahender Sabhnani has definitely taken advantage of the court," U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt said. "And he had taken advantage of my good graces."

Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Varsha, 45, were convicted in December on a 12-count indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens. Prosecutors said the Sabhnanis forced two Indonesian housekeepers to work 18 or more hours a day in their Muttontown mansion for little food or money.

During their trial, the Sabhnanis had been free on a $4.5 million bail package that included strict conditions of house arrest featuring armed security guards - paid for by the couple. After their conviction, Spatt revoked Varsha Sabhnani's bail, ruling that she had been the one who inflicted physical punishment on the housekeepers.

Mahender Sabhnani was permitted to remain free, in part to make arrangements for the care of the couple's four children, who are in their teens and early 20s, and to make accommodations for the operation of his international perfume business.

Spatt ordered Monday's hearing after receiving reports that Sabhnani had been out until 1:06 a.m., 1:57 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. on recent occasions. Spatt said Monday that while he had given Sabhnani permission to attend business meetings in Manhattan, he had little notion the meetings would be held at such late hours.

"If I was told this was going to run till 10 o'clock, I never would have signed the order," Spatt groused. "No judge in his or her right mind would have ever believed he would go out till 2:30 in the morning."

Sabhnani's attorney, Stephen Scaring, said no time limit was specified in court orders. He apologized for what he termed a miscommunication.

The judge reluctantly agreed, but clarified that until Sabhnani is sentenced on June 27, he may only leave home to visit his wife in jail, his attorneys, his doctor or to attend religious services.

"No more business dinners," the judge barked. "I gave him a break which I feel he took advantage of."

Prosecutors said Mahender Sabhnani was charged with the same crimes as his wife because he allowed the conduct to take place and benefited from the work the women performed.

The Sabhnanis face up to 20 years in prison; an appeal is planned.

Scaring declined to comment after the hearing.