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2nd NY millionaire gets prison in slavery case

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CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — A millionaire convicted of helping his wife keep two Indonesian housekeepers as virtual slaves was sentenced Friday to more than three years in prison, ending a trial that shed light on the often little-seen exploitation and abuse of domestic workers.

International perfume maker Mahender Sabhnani, 51, was sentenced to 3 1/3 years and fined $12,500. He was convicted in December on a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harboring aliens.

The victims testified that they were beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives, and forced to climb stairs and take cold showers for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from the trash because they were poorly fed.

On Thursday, Sabhnani tearfully watched as his wife, Varsha, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. On Friday, she dabbed her eyes as she saw her husband meet his own fate.

Prosecutors contended Varsha Sabhnani was primarily responsible for inflicting years of abuse on the poorly educated servants.

Her husband, they said, allowed the conduct to take place and benefited from the work the women performed in their $2 million Long Island home. He operated his perfume business from an office next to his home.

"The mister didn't know about it. The mister was nice. The mister didn't hear. The mister didn't shout," said defense attorney Stephen Scaring, recounting the victims' testimony while arguing for home confinement instead of prison.

"He was the master," countered prosecutor Mark Lesko. "By holding slaves, Mahender Sabhnani violated every notion of freedom that we enjoy in America."

"He had to know what was going on under his roof, and he needs to be punished," the prosecutor said.

Judge Arthur Spatt said that although Mahender Sabhnani did not personally inflict abuse, he must have been aware of it.

"He's a success story: The immigrant who came to this country and succeeded in business. He had to know all these dreadful things and did nothing," the judge said.

The husband is originally from India, and the wife from Indonesia. Both are naturalized U.S. citizens.

One of the workers arrived in the Sabhnanis' Muttontown home in 2002; the second came in 2005. The Sabhnanis immediately confiscated the servants' passports and other travel documents, the women testified.

Prosecutors said the "punishment that escalated into a cruel form of torture" ended in May 2007, when one of the women fled early on Mother's Day. She wandered into a Dunkin' Donuts wearing nothing but rags, and employees called police.

The husband pleaded for freedom at his sentencing, saying the couple's four children wonder, "'Who's going to help us? How can we do it on our own?' Every day, I look at fear in their eyes."

The grown children sat stoically in the front row as he spoke.

"This is a case that has been devastating to this family," said Scaring, the defense attorney. "They are mocked, they are ridiculed, they are laughed at."

Mahender Sabhnani was allowed to remain free on $4.5 million bail, with 24-hour security monitoring, until he surrenders Oct. 30. Varsha Sabhnani's bail was revoked after her conviction in December.

A hearing on whether the couple must forfeit their home was postponed until July 11.

Spatt also will decide on how much the women are owed in restitution for back wages. While the servants worked for the Sabhnanis, their relatives in Indonesia were sent about $100 a month; the women received no direct payments.

Prosecutors suggest the women are due more than $1.1 million, including overtime, but defense attorneys said the figure should be much lower. The women are at an undisclosed location in the New York area and are receiving assistance from Catholic Charities.