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.
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.
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.
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.
Police 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.
Nona 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 a $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 defense. Indeed.
Update – Here