MINEOLA, N.Y. – A millionaire couple were arrested on federal charges that they kept two Indonesian women as slaves in their swank Long Island home for more than five years, beating and abusing them and paying them almost nothing.
Authorities uncovered the alleged abuse after one of the women was found by police wandering outside a doughnut shop Sunday morning wearing only pants and a towel.
The homeowners, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 35, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, entered not guilty pleas Tuesday at their arraignment in U.S. District Court in Central Islip and were ordered held pending a Thursday bail hearing.
Prosecutors said the women had scalding water thrown on them and were forced to repeatedly climb up and down stairs and take as many as 30 showers in three hours — all as punishment for perceived misdeeds. In one case, prosecutors said, one woman was forced to eat 25 hot chili peppers at a time.
One woman told authorities she was cut behind her ears with a pocket knife and both were forced to sleep on mats in the kitchen. They were fed so little, they claimed, they were forced to steal food and hide it from their captors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Demitri Jones, who called the allegations "a case of modern-day slavery," had asked that the homeowners be held without bail, but Magistrate A. Kathleen Tomlinson agreed to hold a bail hearing. The judge also ordered the couple, who are naturalized U.S. citizens from India, to surrender their U.S. passports.
Attorney Charles A. Ross, who represents Varsha Sabhnani, called the couple "upstanding citizens" and insisted "this is not a case of human trafficking." He also said the couple traveled extensively and that the two Indonesian women were free to leave whenever they wished.
Alexandra Tseitlin, who represents Mahender Sabhnani, described the couple as "law-abiding citizens."
A federal complaint alleged the couple, who live in East Muttontown, a tony community on Long Island's north shore, kept the two women in their home as domestic servants, barring them from leaving the house for any reason other than to take trash to the curb. The couple ran a perfume business out of their multimillion-dollar home and have factories in Asia, authorities said.
They also have a residence in Manhattan and $1.8 million in the bank, prosecutors said.
The two women, identified in court papers as Samirah and Nona, said they were promised payments of $200 and $100 a month, but federal prosecutors said they were never given money directly. One of the victims' daughters living in Indonesia was sent $100 a month, prosecutors said.
The women legally arrived in the United States in 2002; the Sabhnanis then confiscated their passports and refused to let them leave their home, authorities said.