They are in perfume business. But with Shakespeare, one could perhaps ask them, would all the perfumes of Arabia sweeten their hands?
To the shame and horror of his fellow Indians, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani (51), and his Indonesian wife Varsha (40) have been 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.
AdvertisementThey 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 face up to 40 years in prison, although attorneys predicted the punishment would be considerably less.
One of the couple's daughters, Dakshina, collapsed in the front row as the verdict was read, prompting the judge to clear the courtroom while medical personnel attended to her.
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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko said in closing arguments the poorly educated women worked as housekeepers for $100 or $150 a month — all of which was sent to their relatives back home.
Lesko said the women, known only as Samirah and Enung, were subjected to ''punishment that escalated into a cruel form of torture'' that ended when one of the women fled on Mother's Day. Samirah, the woman who fled the house in May, said she was forced to eat dozens of chili peppers and then was forced to eat her own vomit when she failed to digest the peppers, prosecutors said. ''This did not happen in the 1800s,'' Lesko said. ''This happened in the 21st century.''
Enung testified that Samirah's nude body once was covered in plastic wrapping tape on orders from Varsha Sabhnani, who then instructed Enung to rip it off. ''When I pulled it off, she was screaming,'' the housekeeper said through an interpreter before breaking down in tears on the witness stand.
But the defense attorneys contended the two women concocted the story of abuse as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. They argued the housekeepers practiced witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of an Indonesian self-mutilation ritual. They also said the couple went on frequent vacations that would have given the two women ample opportunity to flee.
The Sabhnanis spent nearly three months in jail until a judge approved a bail package that required them to post $4.5 million and pay an estimated $10,000 a day for security monitoring while they were kept under house arrest. The bail package remained in effect Monday.
Jeffrey Hoffman, one of the couple's lawyers, said: "We are very disappointed in the verdict," adding they will appeal the decision.
He said the jury was taken in by the histrionics of the maids, who gave details in court about the alleged abuse and torture they underwent for four years at the hands of the couple.
"There are a number of appeals," Hoffman said, adding, "We will pursue this so that they get justice."