CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. - A jury yesterday convicted a millionaire couple of enslaving two Indonesian women they brought to their mansion to work as housekeepers.
Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45, were each convicted of all charges in a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude, and harboring aliens.
Prosecutors said the women were subjected to repeated psychological and physical abuse and were forced to work 18 hours or more a day.
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. He is from India, and she is from Indonesia, but both are naturalized U.S. citizens.
As the verdict was read, one of the couple's daughters, Dakshina, collapsed in the front row, prompting the judge to clear the courtroom while medical personnel attended to her. Soon after, her mother went to comfort her, and she also fainted.
Both women were taken to a hospital, leading the judge to postpone the remaining court proceedings until today, including the scheduling of a sentencing date. Defense attorney Jeffrey Hoffman said he would appeal. "Apparently, the jury was taken by the histrionics" of the Indonesian women, he said.
Fellow defense lawyer Stephen Scaring said another of the Sabhnanis' children, daughter Tina, told him: "We never did anything to anybody. How could this happen to us in America?"
Prosecutors refused to comment until court proceedings were completed.
A representative of the Indonesian consulate in New York declined to comment.
Over six weeks of testimony, prosecutors called it a case of "modern-day slavery."
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.
Allegations of abuse included beatings with brooms and umbrellas, slashings with knives, being made to repeatedly climb stairs and take freezing cold showers as punishment for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed.
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 could not 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.
The Sabhnanis' attorneys contended the two women concocted the story of abuse to escape 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.