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Family faints in slavery case

New York, Dec. 18 (AP): A judge cleared a US courtroom minutes after a jury convicted a millionaire couple in a “modern-day slavery” case, when the woman fainted along with one of her daughters.

The judge said he would ask the jurors to return to the court later, when the couple could learn whether they would be ordered to pay monetary damages.

The government could also seize their mansion, where they kept two Indonesian women as housekeepers, as prosecutors had requested.

Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, who is also from Indonesia, collapsed into the chest of her Indian-born husband, Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, after a jury found them guilty on Monday of all charges in a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labour, conspiracy, involuntary servitude and harbouring aliens.

Moments later, one of their daughters fainted while sitting in the front row in the courtroom gallery. Soon after, her mother went to comfort her, and she also fainted. Both women were taken to an area hospital, prompting the judge to postpone the remaining court proceedings. The mother and daughter were later released from the hospital emergency room.

The verdict brought an end to a trial that portrayed the Sabhnanis’ elegant mansion as a house of horrors for the two victims, who came to America for a better life but ended up making pennies an hour under horrendous conditions.

The victims said they were beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives, forced to climb stairs and take freezing cold showers as punishment for various misdeeds.

One victim was forced to eat dozens of chilli peppers against her will, and then was forced to eat her own vomit when she could not keep the peppers down, prosecutors said.

The defence contended the two women concocted the story as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. They also argued the housekeepers practised witchcraft and may have abused themselves as part of an Indonesian self-mutilation ritual.

The trial also provided a glimpse into the growing problem in the US of domestic workers being exploited in slave-like conditions. Experts hoped that the verdict would have a lasting legacy.

“This certainly does send a message that people can’t do this,” said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City. “This is a lesson; I hope this verdict will make people frightened.”

Although the couple could face as much as 40 years in prison, attorneys predicted the punishment would be considerably less. No sentencing date was set for the Sabhnanis, who run a global perfume business.

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