Varsha Sabhnani, 46, wife of a New York millionaire of Indian origin, was on Thursday sentenced to 12 years in prison for ill-treatment of two Indonesian maids. Her husband Mahender Sabhnani, 51, also guilty, would receive a shorter term.
In December last Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani (51), and his Indonesian wife Varsha (40) were held guilty of subjecting two Indonesian housemaids to repeated psychological and physical abuse in their New York mansion. The millionaire couple are both naturalized US citizens.
They were each convicted on 12 federal counts that included forced labour, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens. The appalling affair has been described as modern day slavery.
The Sabhnanis, who have four children and operate a worldwide perfume business out of their Muttontown home on Long Island's Gold Coast, could have faced up to 40 years in prison.
The allegations against the couple included forcing the Indonesian maids to work 18 hours or more a day, beatings with brooms and umbrellas, slashing with knives and making them repeatedly climb stairs and take freezing showers as punishments punishment for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed.
The couple were arrested in May after one of the maids, wearing only pants and a towel, was found wandering near a Dunkin Donut restaurant.
An interview by police reportedly revealed bruises on the upper part of her body. The other woman was found during a search of the couple's house the same day. The women, who do not know English, were interviewed with the help of an interpreter.
One of the women arrived in the Sabhnanis' Muttontown home in 2002, the second in 2005. Their passports and other travel documents were immediately confiscated by the Sabhnanis, the women testified.
The trial provided a glimpse into a growing U.S. problem of domestic workers exploited in slave-like conditions.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt called the testimony "eye-opening, to say the least -- that things like that go on in our country."
"In her arrogance, she treated Samirah and Enung as less than people," Assistant U.S. Attorney Demetri Jones said. "Justice for the victims, that's what the government is asking for."
Federal sentencing guidelines had recommended a range of 12 to 15 years in prison for Sabhnani, who was identified as the one who inflicted the abuse. In addition to prison, she will serve three years of probation and was fined $25,000.
"I just want to say that I love my children very much," the defendant told the court as two of her grown children looked on. "I was brought to this Earth to help people who are in need."
Defense attorney Jeffrey Hoffman said that 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."
Mahender Sabhnani, 51, who is free on bail while awaiting his own Friday sentencing, wept as he watched his wife's punishment pronounced.
He was charged with the same crimes because he allowed the conduct to take place and benefited from the work the women performed in his home, prosecutors said.
"This did not happen in the 1800s," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko said during the trial. "This happened in the 21st century. This happened in Muttontown, New York."
The women, whose relatives in Indonesia were paid about $100 a month -- the women themselves received no cash -- said they were tortured and beaten for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed. Both women also said they were forced to sleep on mats in the kitchen.
The defense, which intends to appeal, contended the two women concocted the story as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. They also argued that the housekeepers practiced witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of a self-mutilation ritual.
Judge Spatt postponed a decision on the amount of back wages owed to the women. Prosecutors suggested that the women were due more than $1.1 million, but defense attorneys said the figure should be much lower.
The couple also face fines and could be forced to forfeit their home, which is valued at almost $2 million.