CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. A millionaire who inflicted years of abuse on two Indonesian housekeepers held as virtual slaves in her Long Island mansion was sentenced Thursday to 11 years in prison.
Varsha Sabhnani, 46, was convicted with her husband in December on a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens.
The trial provided a glimpse into a growing U.S. problem of domestic workers exploited in slave-like conditions.
The victims testified that they were beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives, and forced to climb stairs and take freezing showers as punishment. One victim was forced to eat dozens of chili peppers against her will, and then was forced to eat her own vomit when she couldn't keep the peppers down, prosecutors said.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt called the testimony "eye-opening, to say the least that things like that go on in our country."
"In her arrogance, she treated Samirah and Enung as less than people," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Demetri Jones. "Justice for the victims: That's what the government is asking for."
Federal sentencing guidelines had recommended a range of 12 to 15 years in prison for Sabhnani, who was identified as the one who inflicted the abuse. In addition to prison, she will serve three years' probation and was fined $25,000.
"I just want to say that I love my children very much," the defendant told the court as two of her grown children looked on. "I was brought to this Earth to help people who are in need."
Mahender Sabhnani, 51, who is free on bail while awaiting his own Friday sentencing, wept as he watched his wife's punishment pronounced.
He was charged with the same crimes because he allowed the conduct to take place and benefited from the work the women performed in his home, prosecutors said. He is expected to receive a much shorter prison term.
Prosecutors contended the accusations amounted to a "modern-day slavery" case. They said the maids were subjected to "punishment that escalated into a cruel form of torture," which ended in May 2007, when one of the women fled early on the morning of Mother's Day. She wandered into a Dunkin' Donuts wearing nothing but rags, and employees called police.
"This did not happen in the 1800s," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko said during the trial. "This happened in the 21st century. This happened in Muttontown, N.Y."
The women, whose relatives in Indonesia were paid about $100 a month the women themselves received no cash said they were tortured and beaten for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed. Both women also said they were forced to sleep on mats in the kitchen.
Spatt postponed a decision on the amount of back wages owed to the women. Prosecutors suggested the women were due more than $1.1 million, while defense attorneys said the figure should be much lower. The couple also face fines and could be forced to forfeit their home, which is valued at almost $2 million. Mahender Sabhnani ran a lucrative international perfume business out of a home office.
One of the women arrived in the Sabhnanis' Muttontown home in 2002; the second in 2005. Their passports and other travel documents were immediately confiscated by the Sabhnanis, the women testified.
The defense, which intends to appeal, contended the two women concocted the story as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. They also argued the housekeepers practiced witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of a self-mutilation ritual.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Hoffman said 175 letters were submitted to the court detailing Sabhnani's charitable acts around the world. He called her "a woman who spent a lifetime doing good deeds."
Hoffman said that around 2004 or 2005, Sabhnani's weight plummeted from 325 pounds to 135. "She did it by starving herself," and that resulted in a chemical imbalance and significant malnourishment. "She had become a very different person."
"I think it's very harsh," Hoffman said after the sentencing. "She has suffered dramatically."