Indian American’s family accused of bribery in slavery case


New York : Prosecutors at a bail hearing for a wealthy Indian American couple charged with slavery and keeping illegal migrants have told the court that the mother of one of the accused tried to bribe a relative of a victim.

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The couple, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, run an international perfume business in the US. They were detained last week and charged by federal authorities for illegally keeping two Indonesian women at their Long Island house for the past five years.

Prosecutors alleged that the two Indonesian women were beaten with broomsticks, cut behind the ears with a knife, burnt with scalding water, made to walk up and down stairs as much as 150 times in a row, and were once forced to eat 25 extremely hot chilli peppers.

They said Varsha's mother, who lives in Indonesia, tried to bribe the son-in-law of one of the victims for the equivalent of $2,500 to suppress the incident. They also said they learned that Varsha had earlier threatened the other victim that she would have her husband, who still lives in Indonesia, arrested if she did not comply with her orders.

"With some astonishment in the past hours, we have learned a very disturbing set of facts," said Assistant US Attorney Mark Lesko Thursday.

The allegation prompted the federal judge to delay a hearing on whether the couple should be released on bail until the bribery accusation is cleared up, Newsday reported.

The new bribery allegation came after the couple pleaded not guilty to charges of slavery and harbouring illegal foreigners.

The case came to light when one of the women, identified only as Samirah, was seen wandering last week wearing only pants and wrapped in a towel. Her face was bruised, and when shop employees tried to communicate with her, she made gestures of slapping herself and uttering what sounded to them like the word 'master'.

If convicted, each of the Sabhnanis face a sentence of 17-22 years in prison.