Saturday, May 26, 2007

NY: Bribe Offered in Slavery Case


Federal prosecutors leveled new accusations yesterday against a couple charged with keeping slaves in their Muttontown mansion, describing an attempt to buy off one of the alleged victims.

The bombshell claim in U.S. District Court in Central Islip dashed any hope that Mahender Sabhnani and his wife, Varsha, had of being released on bail after spending the 10 days since their arrest on forced labor charges in the county lockup.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Demetri Jones said the government learned early yesterday that Varsha Sabhnani's mother allegedly offered 250 million Indonesian rupiahs - $2,500 in U.S. currency - through an intermediary to the son-in-law of a victim identified in court papers only as Samirah if she would return to her homeland.

"Clearly, they are trying to bribe [Samirah] to make the criminal prosecution go away," Jones argued before Federal Judge Thomas Platt.

Jones said Varsha Sabhnani comes from a wealthy and influential family in Indonesia.

"We can't protect [Samirah's] family," the prosecutor added. "If it happened in the U.S., [Varsha's mother] would be sitting in jail next to her daughter and son-in-law."

The judge ordered the government to obtain sworn affidavits from the victim's son-in-law and the intermediary about the alleged bribe and scheduled the next court appearance for Wednesday.

The millionaire Sabhnanis, who own a successful perfume business, had hired two Indonesian women as domestic servants but didn't pay them, and the wife allegedly subjected the women to beatings, psychological torture and neglect, according to court papers.

Wearing jailhouse jumpsuits, the couple pleaded not guilty to an indictment charging them with forced labor and harboring illegal aliens. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison and the seizure of their $2 million home in which the alleged victims were kept prisoners.

Another prosecutor, Mark Lesko, said the Sabhnanis' substantial finances remain murky, which makes them great risks to flee if released on bail.

"We might as well give them a ride to the tarmac at JFK Airport," Lesko warned the judge. "They have enough money to not just lease a plane - they could buy a plane."

Lawyer Joseph Conway, who represents the couple's oldest daughter, Pooja, said outside court, "We are pretty confident those [bribe] allegations will be withdrawn or proven to be false."

Pooja Sabhnani left in a $60,000 Porsche SUV without speaking to reporters.

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