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New York Hindu Priest Wins $ 2.3 Million For Being Forced Into Bonded Labour By Temple Owners

PTI 17 Dec 2010, 22:17:54 IST
Devendra Shukla, a Hindu priest from Uttar Pradesh has won a $2.3million compensation from the temple owners  after being forced to 'work as a slave' for seven years, The Daily Mail and New York Post reported.

Shukla had his passport confiscated by Sat Prakash Sharma and his wife Geeta - who ran the Corono ashram in Corona, Queens - and was then forced to do their bidding for a pittance in exchange.

The court was told the 34-year-old worked 18-hour days, including heavy labour on a construction site, for which he received a paltry $50 a week.

Over the seven years he stayed with the Sharmas, Shukla received a miserly $21,000 and was unable to once go home and see his family the whole time.

He finally snapped and sued the Sharmas and was overwhelmed when a jury sided with him and awarded the huge sum in compensation.

Fighting back the tears, he said: ‘I have received justice. I am hopeful that I will see my wife and children soon - it's almost 10 years that I have not seen my wife and children in India.'

Shukla had moved to New York from his remote Indian village in U.P. in the hope of providing for his family, who remained back home.

He ended up in seven years of misery at the hands of  Sharma, who was president of temple in Queens, and his wife, who sat on the board.

The court was told Shukla had been promised pay of $500 per week, including bed and board - but the reality was nothing like it.

Instead he had to sleep in a windowless room or a ‘cell', and was made to work from 5am to 11pm on a string of jobs for which he was not qualified.

The Sharmas have a separate construction business and they made the priest muck in as a loader, painter, electrician and pipe cutter.

Following an eight-day hearing, a jury at Brooklyn's federal court found the couple were civilly liable for forced labour, involuntary servitude and trafficking violations.

‘From the temple of slavery, to the temple of justice,' said Shukla's lawyer Sanjay Chaubey.

Sharma's lawyer Krishnan Chittur, had claimed in court that Mr Shukla just wanted a green card. He said the couple would appeal.

"I have received justice," the priest said. "I am hopeful that I will see my wife and children soon -- it's almost 10 years that I have not seen my wife and children in India."

The 34-year-old wept in the courthouse lobby, as jurors walked by and expressed well-wishes after the trial's end.

The priest's lawyer Chaubay said the jury found that the Sharmas were civilly liable for forced labor, involuntary servitude and trafficking violations against his client.

In addition to running the Hindu temple, Sat Sharma also owns a liquor license and a building where a strip bar, "Da Shark Lounge," operates in upstate Monticello.

During the trial, the priest's attorney said that Shukla was supposed to be paid $500 a week, plus free room and board, when he came to New York from India.

The jury found that the Sharmas had illegally forced Shukla to minister to worshipers in the temple from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., and also work in their construction business as a loader, a pipe cutter, an electrician, and a painter.

After hiring the priest, the Sharmas confiscated his passport and paid him only $50 a week -- for a grand total of just $21,000 over seven years.

During the trial, the Sharmas' attorney denied that the priest worked for the construction firm and argued he was supposed to receive only $500 a month, with room and board included. Krishnan Chittur, their attorney, claimed the priest was just trying to secure a green card, and said the Sharmas plan to appeal the verdict.