In a rare criminal case, a New York jury convicted a millionaire perfume makers Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45, of enslaving two Indonesian housekeepers while using bizarre forms of punishments like forced eating of hot peppers and vomit. While the defense insists that the allegations are merely “histrionics,” the jury clearly found the two women credible and convicted the wealthy couple.
The husband and wife team were charged .in a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude, and harboring aliens. couple of enslaving two Indonesian women they brought to their mansion to work as housekeepers. They could received 40 years but are expected to get far less.
They have four children and ran their global perfume business out of their Muttontown home on Long Island’s Gold Coast. One of their daughters, Dakshina, collapsed in the front row and was attended to by medical staff as the courtroom was cleared.
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 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.
This could be a hard case to appeal. Much of the verdict turned on the credibility of the witnesses. An appellate court normally gives great deference to such factual determinations. The defense attacked the housekeepers as people who made up the story and even practiced witchcraft. The problem is that a case like this demands the testimony of the couple themselves. While it is often the preference to play it safe by not exposing clients to cross-examination, these cases rise or fall on the credibility of the accused, not just the accuser. If silent, juries tend to read facts against the defendants.
These allegations could support tort liability against the couple, which would be proven at the lower standard of preponderance of the evidence.
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