Wealthy New York Couple Indicted on Federal Slavery Charges for Keeping 2 Indonesian Women

A millionaire couple accused of keeping two Indonesian women as slaves in their luxurious Long Island home for years — viciously inflicting abuse for perceived offenses — have been indicted on federal slavery charges.

Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 35, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their home with factories in Singapore and Bahrain, were arrested last week after one of their servants was found wandering outside a doughnut shop on Long Island's so-called Gold Coast.

The indictment, handed up Tuesday night, also charges the couple with harboring illegal residents.

They had entered not guilty pleas last week during their initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Central Islip; a magistrate judge later set bail at $3.5 million and imposed home detention with electronic monitoring.

Friends and relatives indicated the couple would be willing to post bail, but as of Wednesday morning, the pair remained in custody.

Their arraignment on the grand jury indictment has not been scheduled, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said Wednesday.

Authorities uncovered the abuse after one of the women was found by police wandering in Syosset on May 13, wearing only pants and a towel. The woman is believed to have escaped the Sabhnani home when she brought the trash out the night before. Assistant U.S. Attorney Demitri Jones has called the allegations "truly a case of modern-day slavery."

The women, prosecutors said, were subjected to beatings, had scalding water thrown on them and were forced to repeatedly climb up stairs and take as many as 30 showers in three hours — all as punishment for perceived misdeeds. In one case, prosecutors said, one of the women was forced to eat 25 hot chili peppers at one time.

One of the women also 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, that they were forced to steal food and hide it from their captors.

Attorneys for the couple said they intend to fight the allegations. Charles A. Ross, who represents Varsha Sabhnani, said the couple traveled extensively and that the two Indonesian women were free to leave whenever they wished.

The women legally arrived in the United States on B-1 visas in 2002; the Sabhnanis then confiscated their passports and refused to let them leave their home, authorities said. Identified in court papers as Samirah and Nona, the women 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.

They have since been cared for by Catholic Charities, according to a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In a separate proceeding, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani filed a federal lawsuit last week alleging that L'OrDeal and Giorgio Armani had illegally copied the name of his business' upscale men's cologne brand known as Attitude. An attorney representing L'OrDeal and Giorgio Armani did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on Wednesday.