NEWS

Long Island Indian Couple in Slavery Case Get Bail

May 31, 2007
Amrita Rajan

A few short weeks ago, Varsha and Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani were the epitome of the Indian immigrant success story. Varsha, 45, an Indonesian of Indian descent, and Mahender, 51, an Indian, ran a multi-million dollar perfume business from their Long Island home, pictured below. The Muttontown mansion, located in one of the wealthiest areas of New York, was a fitting testament to their success.

Courtesy: Newsday


That was then. Now, the police allege that this luxurious two story house and the couple who own it form the center of a gut wrenching tale of modern day slavery – the Sabhnanis stand accused of brutally mistreating two Indonesian women, hired as maids but treated as chattel, to be beaten and misused to the extent that they were often hidden away from sight, in the garage, basement, various cubbyholes and compartments like the one under the stairs, pictured below.

Courtesy: Newsday
.

The two middle aged women, identified only as “Nona” and “Samirah”, say that they were forced to sleep on the kitchen floor, regularly starved, beaten, and tortured in various ways by Varsha Sabhnani with the full knowledge of her husband, Mahender. They put in 21 hour work days, seven days a week for the promise of $200 a month – a fraction of the amount the lowliest paid of her American counterparts would have received. Samirah told authorities that she found out that even this was a lie: her family had been receiving only half that sum.

Courtesy: Newsday



Authorities say they learned of this house of horrors when Samirah was found wandering, bruised, half-naked and sobbing, about a mile away from the Sabhnani residence by a Dunkin Donuts manager, Adrian Mohammed, who initially thought she must be a homeless person.

“Home. I want to go home,” she begged in broken English, says Mohammed, thrusting an expired Indonesian passport at him.

NewsdayVarshaPolice who responded to Mohammed’s 911 call discovered two traumatized women. Samirah and Nona (who was found cowering in the 3 by 3 foot cubbyhole featured above) bore all the signs of long term abuse. They said Varsha used to beat them with household implements such as rolling pins and broomsticks, cut them behind their ears with a paring knife, forced them to take upto 30 ice cold showers in a row or eat roughly 25 red hot chillies as punishment for perceived mistakes, and gave them so little food to eat that they’d taken to secreting some away under a panel in the kitchen ceiling. Samirah even pointed out a bloodstained door; mute witness, she said, to the horrors she and Nona had suffered.

The Sabhnanis' defense is that they were well known jetsetters who were as often out of the house as in it – not only did they travel the world on business but they also maintained a separate two-bedroom condo in Manhattan. The two women could have walked out at any time. The couple, who have four children, hired separate lawyers but have so far maintained a unified stance in spite of the fact that the maids consistently point out Varsha as the main aggressor.

Courtesy: NewsdayNona and Samirah counter that their passports were confiscated upon arrival by Varsha – she only gave Samirah’s back to her once it had expired. Nona was threatened with jail, both for her and her husband back in Indonesia, if she tried to leave. Samirah’s son reports that when he received word of what was going on in the Sabhnani household, he tried calling Varsha’s mother, who lives in Indonesia. He says she first told him to pay up a certain amount of money to buy out Samirah’s “contract” and then told him to be careful because she had the power to kill his mother.

In fact, allegation upon allegation has been spilling out ever since the Sabhnanis were arrested – from bribes offered by Varsha’s family to make it all go away to death threats against the maids’ family members. Lawyers for the defense say that all these charges are untrue and they “would not be substantiated” if produced in a court of law.

The Sabhnanis are hardly the first to be suspected of modern day slavery. Hundreds of thousands of poor workers, especially Mexicans, cross the American border every year in search of a better life. While all of them live in fear of the law and deportation, some of them end up enslaved to unscrupulous traffickers who expect them to pay off exorbitant contracts by working for a pittance. They make it all the way to the land of opportunity, to be denied any.

Mahender Sabhnani’s lawyer however, refutes all charges of human trafficking. The couple is now out on $3.5 million bail. As they’re not only seen as a flight risk with global connections but are also considered capable of violence, conditions for release include strict restrictions such as house detention, wiretapped phones, and limited to no access to the internet. And all bills incurred by the police in said surveillance will be paid for by the Sabhnanis. The house that Nona and Samirah described as their slave pen, will now cage its owners.

“Freedom is priceless,” said the lawyer for the defense. Indeed.

Amrita Rajan is a writer based in NYC
eXTReMe Tracker
Keep reading for comments on this article and add some feedback of your own!

Comments! Feedback! Speak and be heard!

Comment on this article or leave feedback for the author

#1
Desi Witch
URL
June 1, 2007
05:36 AM

The sad thing is that back home there are so many people who get away with this abusive behaviour because it's tacitly accepted in our class-ridden society.

#2
Sanjay Garg
URL
June 1, 2007
06:11 AM

When this story first broke, I knew it was just a matter of time when someone made the link to "back home".

#3
Deepti Lamba
URL
June 1, 2007
06:16 AM

Varsha Sabhnanis could easily pass off the witch from Wizard Of Oz. The couple deserve to rot in prison.

#4
Amrita
URL
June 1, 2007
11:10 AM

DW - i was thinking of the kids especially. I don't know anybody who treats their servants this badly but you're right, it's doubtful anybody would even lodge a complaint if this happened in India.

Sanjay - well, yeah, obviously.

Dee - i couldn't agree with you more.

#5
Sanjay Garg
URL
June 1, 2007
08:09 PM

Well, the pictures certainly aren't flattering but that is no reason to convict her (and him) before the courts do. Of course, if found guilty then they deserve to be put away for a long time.

I find a disconnect in this whole situation. To jeapordize a multi million dollar business (2 manufacturing plants in Asia, sales worldwide) and the lives of their 4 kids over a couple of domestics sounds extremely stupid, or pathological.

Another thing complicating the matter is that Mahender Sabhnani's company Eternal Love Parfums has also sued L'Oréal and Giorgio Armani for patent infringement. Corporate rivalry, espionage etc cannot be completely ruled out.

#6
BJ Kumar
June 2, 2007
12:04 AM


#3 Deepti

I had a similar thought. There is an amazing resemblance to Cruella DeVille!

But (long breath...)

Let's not jump to hasty conclusions here based on appearances of individuals - no matter how terrible the circumstances appear, no matter how cruel her conduct appears, no matter how much it looks like a case of a heartless creep taking advantage of her position of power to exploit and abuse a couple of helpless, vulnerable women trapped far away from their homeland...

Grrrrr...

Darn, it's not working.

(Releasing long breath...)

I hope they throw her into the slammer and throw away the key! And the hubby too!

#7
Amrita
URL
June 2, 2007
12:33 AM

Sanjay - If this is corporate sabotage then it's the weirdest example I ever saw. But I'd be a lot more inclined to believe that angle if the two women hadn't been working for them for a while and there wasn't extensive medical evidence. Say they didnt do any of it and the two women were doing it to themselves - the Sabhnanis must have noticed that the two women were losing weight and bleeding all over the place, don't you think? People who do this sort of thing usually do it, not because they're pathological (although that lady sure looks something like it) but because they really dont believe they'll be caught.

BJ - She is sort of unfortunate looking isnt she? And that's a really bad angle.

#8
Sanjay Garg
URL
June 2, 2007
06:25 AM

Amrita: But I'd be a lot more inclined to believe that angle if the two women hadn't been working for them for a while and there wasn't extensive medical evidence.

The point you make about the signs of physical abuse on the two women is valid but still an allegation, yet to be proven in court. Since the case is not even in trial and no evidence has yet been presented, I'm not sure about the extensive medical evidence.

Despite appearances, we must not forget that many friends and neighbours came forward to post bail for the Sabhnanis, an indication that they were socially active and are well liked.

People who do this sort of thing usually do it, not because they're pathological (although that lady sure looks something like it) but because they really dont believe they'll be caught.

Even those who speed do it because they think they won't be caught. Not only is this a presumpion of guilt but raises more questions than it answers.

The corporate rivalry may seem unusual until one realizes that they are running a business out of their home (fuzzy line between corp and home), by itself a bit unusual for a corporation with international operations & global sales. I believe they can do this because their sales model is primarily via online retailers like ebay, amazon etc. I would not be surprised if this "new economy" distributional model was threatening the old way of selling fragrances - via expensive counters in upscale department stores.

It is interesting that Mr Sabhnani chose to file the civil lawsuit against Armani and Loreal the very same day of the criminal charges against him and his wife.

#9
Amrita
URL
June 2, 2007
12:22 PM

Sanjay - it's true that these are allegations but if you look at the newsday links then the police handout pretty much tells the whole story. Like I said, there is no way that much of evidence can be manufactured without their knowledge over such a long time.

And I'm a lot more skeptical by nature of conspiracy theories than I am of formerly well-liked people being revealed as secret monsters. Most serial killers do tend to be rather nice colorless men, dont they? It's not often that they're so obviously weird like that Virginia Tech kid.

I'm also fairly certain that if there was any way the Sabhnanis could deflect blame on to their competition then their lawyers would have brought it up a long time ago. Yet, they're talking of beating human trafficking charges. Manhattan lawyers would jump at the chance to bring in names like Armani to a slavery case.

#10
Sanjay Garg
URL
June 2, 2007
05:34 PM

Amrita:Like I said, there is no way that much of evidence can be manufactured without their knowledge over such a long time.

Yes, and the entire family would have to be in on it. To me, this is the surprising part because one would think there was at least one voice of reason that would have spoken out. After all, the kids were raised in America and know how to speak their minds.

I guess the police have charged them for a reason and all the details should come out in the trial.

#11
s v sivarama
June 30, 2007
01:37 PM

Yea sure, bet they are all Sindhis who stick by their kin, right or wrong, in most cases wrong.

Despite appearances, we must not forget that many friends and neighbours came forward to post bail for the Sabhnanis, an indication that they were socially active and are well liked.

Add your comment

(Or ping: http://desicritics.org/tb/5447)

Personal attacks are not allowed. Please read our comment policy.






Remember Name/URL?

Please preview your comment!