Slavey husband gets jail time

June 27, 2008 4:36:25 PM PDT
A judge has handed a 3 1/3-year prison sentence to a millionaire convicted along with his wife of keeping two Indonesian housekeepers as virtual slaves in their Long Island home. International perfume maker Mahender Sabhnani, 51, was sentenced to a prison term of three and one-third years and fined $12,500. He was convicted in December on a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens.

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 the trash because they were poorly fed.

On Thursday, Sabhnani tearfully watched as his wife, Varsha, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. On Friday, she dabbed her eyes as she saw her husband meet his own fate.

Prosecutors contended Varsha Sabhnani was primarily responsible for inflicting years of abuse on the poorly educated servants.

Her husband, they said, allowed the conduct to take place and benefited from the work the women performed in their $2 million home; he operated the business from an adjacent office.

"The Mr. didn't know about it. The Mr. was nice. The Mr. didn't hear. The Mr. didn't shout," said defense attorney Stephen Scaring, recounting the victims' testimony while arguing for home confinement instead of prison.

"He was the master," countered Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko. "By holding slaves, Mahender Sabhnani violated every notion of freedom that we enjoy in America."

"He had to know what was going on under his roof, and he needs to be punished," the prosecutor said.

Judge Arthur Spatt conceded that Mahender Sabhnani did not personally inflict abuse, but said he must have been aware of it.

"He's a success story: The immigrant who came to this country and succeeded in business. He had to know all these dreadful things and did nothing," said the judge.

The husband is originally from India, and the wife from Indonesia. Both are naturalized U.S. citizens.

One of the workers arrived in the Sabhnanis' Muttontown home in 2002; the second came in 2005. The Sabhnanis immediately confiscated the servants' passports and other travel documents, 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.

The husband pleaded for freedom at his sentencing, saying the couple's four children wonder, "`Who's going to help us? How can we do it on our own?' Every day, I look at fear in their eyes."

The grown children sat stoically in the front row as he spoke.

Scaring said the prosecution had taken a toll on the Sabhnanis and their children.

"This is a case that has been devastating to this family," said Scaring. "They are mocked, they are ridiculed, they are laughed at."

A hearing on whether the couple must forfeit their Long Island mansion was postponed until July 11.


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