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Muttontown 'slave' case convictions upheld

A federal appeals court Thursday upheld the convictions of Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani of Muttontown for enslaving and torturing two Indonesian women.

The couple was convicted in December 2007 after a seven-week trial in federal court in Central Islip. Varsha Sabhnani, who took an active role in mistreating the women, is serving an 11-year sentence in federal prison.

Her husband, Mahender, facing a 40-month sentence, had been confined to his home on bail pending the appeal's outcome. The court ordered him to start his sentence on April 5.

The judges of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected more than a half-dozen claims by the Sabhnanis attacking both the conduct of the trial and the sentence. Among their arguments was that the trial should have been moved off Long Island because of prejudicial pretrial publicity that included descriptions of Varsha as "Cruella de Vil."

"The pretrial publicity here was not so pervasive and prejudicial as to have created a reasonable likelihood that a fair trial could not be conducted," Judge Debra Livingston wrote in a unanimous 72-page opinion.

The only relief granted to the couple involved U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt's restitution awards of $620,000 and $315,000 to the two women forced to work for the Sabhnanis for five years and two years, respectively.

Spatt's calculation assumed they worked 24 hours a day, so he added overtime pay. The appeals court ruled that a law exempts domestic help from overtime rules, and directed Spatt to recalculate.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell said the government still was reviewing the decision and had no comment.

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