Prosecutors: N.Y. Millionaire’s Mother Tried to Bribe Slave's Relative to Make Case Go Away

The mother of a woman accused of keeping two Indonesian women as slaves tried to bribe a victim's relative to make the case go away, prosecutors said.

The accused woman, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, were being held in jail on Friday, a day after the new charges arose at their arraignment.

The millionaire couple -- who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their Long Island home -- pleaded not guilty to federal slavery charges.

They were arrested last week after one of the servants, wearing only pants and a towel, was found wandering outside a doughnut shop in Syosset, on the region's so-called Gold Coast. Authorities concluded she escaped the Sabhnanis' nearby Muttontown home when she took out the trash.

Unable to speak English fluently, she showed her wounds and Indonesian passport to a shop worker and said, "Mister, mister, I want to go home -- Indonesia," said Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kristiarto Legowo.

Prosecutors said Thursday that Varsha Sabhnani's mother, who lives in Indonesia, tried to make the case go away by bribing a son-in-law of one of the servants with the equivalent of $2,500. They also said Varsha Sabhnani had earlier told the other victim that her husband, who still lives in Indonesia, would be arrested unless she followed orders.

"The defendants operated a torture house," federal prosecutor Mark Lesko said. "They are capable of acts of violence."

The prosecutors would not say where in Indonesia the alleged incidents occurred. Legowo also declined to say where the women's relatives live in Indonesia.

Legowo said the two women came from Indonesia's West Java province and were brought to the New York area in 2002 by Varsha Sabhnani, who was born in Indonesia and speaks Indonesian.

Authorities say the women arrived in the U.S. legally on B-1 visas and that the Sabhnanis confiscated their passports and refused to let them leave the Muttontown home.

The judge deferred a bail request for the couple until next Wednesday.

Defense lawyers have denied that the workers were abused or held against their will. They were disappointed by the new allegations but said they would be withdrawn or proven to be false.

"Obviously the allegations were upsetting, but at this point, we're pretty confident," said Joseph Conway, an attorney for one of the Sabhnanis' daughters, Pooja, who works in the family business but is not charged with any crime.

Lesko also argued that the defendants are a flight risk.

"They have enough money to buy a plane," he said, and if bail were granted, "we might as well drive them to the tarmac at Kennedy airport."

Prosecutors said the women were beaten, scalded and forced to climb stairs repeatedly and take as many as 30 showers in three hours -- all as punishment for perceived misdeeds. They said one was forced to eat 25 hot chili peppers at one time.

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

The Sabhnanis were federally indicted Tuesday on charges of forced labor and harboring illegal residents. They had previously been taken into custody on a complaint filed by immigration agents.

Each face up to 20 years in prison.