December 21, 2014

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Servant says she was enslaved at New York mansion

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — An Indonesian servant for a millionaire couple accused of modern-day slavery testified Monday she was forced to eat her own vomit and was scalded with hot water for misdeeds such as sleeping late and pilfering food.

The 51-year-old woman, identified only as Samirah, said through an interpreter that she was also repeatedly poked with a knife and that her ears were twisted until they bled.

The fear of being abused caused her to involuntarily urinate, she said, for which she was punished further.

“I said, ‘Mrs., just send me home to Indonesia,’ ” Samirah said.

Samirah’s testimony began last week in the trial of Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45. The couple have pleaded not guilty to all charges in a 12-count federal indictment, including conspiracy, involuntary servitude and other offenses.

They are accused of bringing Samirah and another Indonesian woman, Enung, to the United States to work as housekeepers but enslaving them instead in their Long Island mansion, sending $100 a month home to their families but subjecting them to psychological and physical abuse.

The Sabhnanis — who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their home — were arrested in May after Samirah, wearing tattered clothes, was found at a doughnut shop, pleading for help after apparently escaping while taking out the trash.

The second housekeeper was discovered hiding in a basement closet after authorities searched the mansion based on Samirah’s claims. Enung was expected to testify later in the trial.

Looking agitated on the witness stand Monday, Samirah stood up and waved her hands as she demonstrated how she was slashed with a knife. She also got down on her knees in front of jurors to show how she scrubbed floors three times every day since her arrival at the home in 2002.

Defense attorneys contend the housekeepers practiced witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of an Indonesian self-mutilation ritual, an assertion Samirah denied. The couple went on frequent vacations that would have given the two women ample opportunity to flee, their lawyers said.

Samirah said she was forced to walk naked from the servants’ room to the kitchen and to eat 100 chili peppers.

“Not satisfied that I wasn’t dead yet,” Samirah said, she was then made to consume spoonfuls of chili powder mixed with salt water. She said she vomited and was told to eat the vomit.

Samirah, who is barely 5 feet tall and weighs well under 100 pounds, said she never considered fighting back. She said Varsha Sabhnani had repeatedly threatened her and suggested there would be reprisals against her children in Indonesia.

She said she was disciplined after being caught eating cake out of a trash can, even though the cake was contaminated with laundry detergent.

If convicted, the Sabhnanis could face 40 years in prison. The couple is free on bond.