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Bribe offer alleged in slavery case

Prosecutors' assertion rocks a bail hearing for an affluent Long Island, N.Y., couple accused of holding and torturing two Indonesian women.

May 25, 2007|Robert E. Kessler | Newsday

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — Federal prosecutors dropped a bombshell Thursday at a bail hearing for an affluent Long Island couple charged with slavery and harboring illegal residents, saying the mother of one of the accused had offered a bribe to a relative of one of the alleged victims.

The claim led a federal judge to delay a hearing on whether the couple should be released on bail until the bribery accusation -- as well as prosecutors' questions about the couple's finances -- are cleared up.

The bribery allegation came after the couple, Varsha Sabhnani and her husband, Mahender, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court to charges of slavery and harboring fugitive aliens.

The Sabhnanis operate a worldwide perfume business out of their home.

"With some astonishment ... in the past hours, we have learned a very disturbing set of facts," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Lesko.

Prosecutors said Varsha Sabhnani's mother recently had tried to bribe the son-in-law of one of the two Indonesian women who were allegedly enslaved and tortured.

The $2,500 bribe was conditioned on the alleged victim's return to Indonesia, where her family and Sabhnani's mother live, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors Lesko and Demetri Jones have previously said the woman who is the subject of the purported bribe had been repeatedly tortured by Sabhnani.

Prosecutors said Sabhnani told the woman that if she caused trouble and fled, she would call the police and say the Indonesian woman had stolen her jewelry.

They said Sabhnani told the second victim that if she caused trouble, Sabhnani's influential friends in Indonesia would arrange the arrest of her husband, who lives there.

Earlier in the week, a federal magistrate had said the Sabhnanis could be released on bail under a stringent set of conditions, but the filing of the indictment allowed the government to call for a new bail hearing. Prosecutors also said the Sabhnanis had not submitted adequate financial information to support the bail.

Defense attorneys said prosecutors had not previously asked for any new financial information, and claimed it was unfair for the government to raise the bribe allegation in the midst of the bail hearing without prior notice.

Varsha Sabhnani's attorney, Charles Ross, said he was confident the bribe allegation would not be substantiated.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas C. Platt scheduled the next hearing in the case for Wednesday.

The Sabhnanis 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 fled the Sabhnanis' home when she took out the trash.

Prosecutors said the women were beaten, scalded and forced to repeatedly climb stairs and to take as many as 30 showers in three hours -- all as punishment for perceived misdeeds.

One of the women said that she was cut behind her ears with a pocket knife and that both slept on mats in the kitchen.

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

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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