Varsha and Murlidhar Sabhnani (read details here) are still in jail.
A Long Island Indian-Indonesian millionaire immigrant couple, the Sabhnanis were arrested in May for enslaving and torturing their Indonesian maids. Seen as a flight risk because of their wealth and international connections (from New York to India to Indonesia), bail was set for $3.5 million on the condition that the couple be confined to house arrest. All expenses incurred, including monitoring systems and guards, estimated to amount to some $15,000 a day, were to be borne by them.
However, one month later, the couple’s lawyers are yet to come to an understanding with the prosecuting attorney, leaving them in jail. Presiding federal judge Thomas Platt, who’d earlier said that he would work out a plan for home detention if the two parties were unable to reach a compromise, sided with the prosecution:
The judge held several hearings but ultimately found on Monday that because the Sabhnanis present a “risk of flight, no such conditions or combination of conditions would adequately assure the presence of the defendants” at future court dates.
Platt also said that
he was denying the couple bail because he believed that they had not been forthcoming in disclosing their finances and that they might be capable of deceit.
The Sabhnanis, who’ve moved stonily through the entire process even though their daughter has broken down at least once, showed no visible reaction to his ruling in court, promptly fired their team of lawyers and hired a new set who asked that Judge Platt be removed because he
has been found, as a previous appellate court ruling has said, to have “a willingness to rubber stamp any suggestion made by the United States Attorney.”
The case, due to begin September 10, 2007, is only one of the Sabhnanis’ problems albeit the most serious one. One May 18, five days after their arrest in the slavery case, the Sabhnanis filed a lawsuit against Girogio Armani Perfumes and L’Oreal for trademark infringement.
The Sabhnanis, who own an international perfume empire, had trademarked “Attitude” in 1995 but neglected to file some necessary paperwork/renew the license. Now, L’Oreal and Armani are marketing a perfume by the same name.
Since I first wrote about this story, at least one reader has come forward with the conspiracy theory that the two cases might be related – that the slavery case might be one of corporate skullduggery, engineered to weaken their ability to fight a civil suit. Others are baffled by the long term nature of the alleged abuse and wonder why the two women didn’t make a bid for freedom earlier. The Sabhnanis’ lawyers on the other hand have another conspiracy angle involving the Indonesian maids whose testimonies lie at the heart of the case:
“The time-honored truth-telling test of cross-examination will reveal whether their allegations are an attempt to further improve their lots [they have overstayed their visas] by aligning themselves with the United States Government against employers they may well have perceived as unduly privileged.”
Given that I have absolutely no say in the proceedings and that I have not seen all the evidence, in my opinion the above theories are bunkum.
The idea of L’Oreal and Armani banding together to cook up a conspiracy involving slavery, Indonesian maids and federal prosecutors is ludicrous, however one looks at it. Trademark infringement cases are fought all the time and anyway, the Sabhnanis are the ones who messed up in the first place by neglecting their paperwork – it hardly warrants an all out corporate war that involves the federal court.
And as to why the women didn’t walk out on their own – it’s for the same reason that other victims of abuse, whether domestic violence or modern slavery, don’t just walk out on their abusers. The psychological impact of torture carried out by those in positions of power in an unfamiliar land can only be imagined by most of us. For a basic introduction to modern day slavery in the United States, read this.
As for the lawyers’ contention that the two women are working with the government to victimize their clients – that whole scenario depends on one assumption: that the U.S. government wishes to punish the Sabhnanis. And why would that be?
Going by the defense, can one presume that some interesting skeletons are waiting to come out of the Sabhnani closet?