updated 5/23/2007 5:59:35 PM ET 2007-05-23T21:59:35

A millionaire couple accused of keeping two Indonesian women as slaves in their luxurious Long Island home for years — viciously inflicting abuse for perceived offenses — have been indicted on federal slavery charges.

Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 35, and her husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their home, were arrested last week after one of their servants was found wandering outside a doughnut shop on Long Island's so-called Gold Coast.

They were not formally charged until an indictment was handed up Tuesday night, charging the couple with two counts of forced labor and two counts of harboring illegal residents. They were taken into custody on a federal complaint filed by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Sabhnanis will be arraigned on the indictment Thursday.

A magistrate judge in U.S. District Court in Central Islip set bail last week at $3.5 million. Friends and relatives of the couple indicated they would be willing to post bail on their behalf, but as of Wednesday morning, the pair remained in custody.

Authorities uncovered the abuse after one of the women was found by police wandering in Syosset on May 13, wearing only pants and a towel. The woman is believed to have escaped the Sabhnani home when she brought the trash out the night before. Assistant U.S. Attorney Demitri Jones has called the allegations "a case of modern-day slavery."

The women, prosecutors said, were subjected to beatings, had scalding water thrown on them and were forced to repeatedly climb up stairs and take as many as 30 showers in three hours — all as punishment for perceived misdeeds. In one case, prosecutors said, one of the women was forced to eat 25 hot chili peppers at one time.

Horrific treatment described
One of the women also told authorities she was cut behind her ears with a pocket knife and both were forced to sleep on mats in the kitchen. They were fed so little, they claimed, that they were forced to steal food and hide it from their captors.

Attorneys for the couple said they intend to fight the allegations.

The defendants, originally from India, are U.S. citizens who had their passports confiscated when they were arrested.

Charles A. Ross, who represents Varsha Sabhnani, said the couple traveled extensively and that the two Indonesian women were free to leave whenever they wished.

The women legally arrived in the United States in 2002; the Sabhnanis then confiscated their passports and refused to let them leave their home, authorities said. Identified in court papers as Samirah and Nona, the women said they were promised payments of $200 and $100 a month, but federal prosecutors said they were never given money directly. One of the victims' daughters living in Indonesia was sent $100 a month, prosecutors said.

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

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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