The Obhrais: Millionaire family that kept a woman prisoner in their home
They worked hard to do well, writes Paul Peachey – but nothing like as hard as the Indian immigrant they abused
Friday 19 April 2013
With a £2m house on a highly-desirable private estate, protected by security cameras, the professional success of the millionaire Obhrai family must have been obvious to the golfers on the course that bordered their large back garden.
There was little doubt that they worked hard: Shashi Obhrai's opticians business in central London was supplemented by her visa operation that serviced applicants to the Indian Embassy just over the road. In addition to his work as an IT consultant that helped make the family's fortune, her husband Balram let residential properties for prestigious clients including members of the US and German navy.
But the woman they kept prisoner in the house worked even harder. For the six months that she was kept there, the 40-year-old slave – who had already been attacked and exploited by two other families and cannot be named for legal reasons – worked an estimated 17-hour day, cooking and cleaning for the family's elderly parents and their three, intelligent young children.
In stark contrast to her wealthy surroundings, the illiterate and vulnerable woman was fed virtually nothing but out-of-date food and the spat-out leftovers of their children. Mrs Obhrai sought to ensure her obedience to the eight-strong family through intimidation and threats.
It seemed that the victim needed to do little to provoke her hosts, well-regarded members of the Indian community who had come to Britain from Ghana. Once, she was hit over the head with a rolling pin because Mrs Obhrai did not like the way she made chapattis.
She burnt her with an iron, dragged her down the stairs and threatened to hurt her with insulin needles, the court heard. Mrs Obhrai attacked the middle-aged woman with such viciousness that she left scars from where her nails had penetrated the skin.
The victim never had a proper meal, so once, when she was too dizzy from hunger to cook, she was beaten. She threw up and was made to mop up the vomit using her own clothes, police said.
"They have made my life hell," said the victim after Mrs Obhrai and two previous "keepers" were found guilty of a series of brutal attacks. "I have suffered with depression and sleepless nights for a very long time. I have to take medication so that I can get some sleep. They have treated me so badly that I worry at night that they will come for me.
"Shashi Obhrai put a hot iron on my arm when I asked her for my earnings to be paid. She told me that she would do it. I told her that the iron was on and she said, 'Have a look, is it hot or not?', and put the iron on me."
The victim did not know to dial 999 for police until she was passed to the Obhrai family for work in 2007. But she still faced difficulties because she spoke only Hindi. When she repeatedly called the emergency number one day, Hertfordshire Police officers only turned up at the house when the Obhrais had returned home and she could not speak openly.
On another occasion, she handed over a jar of unrecognisable goo to police which she said she had been given to eat. She was taken to hospital for treatment. When she was released and taken to Watford police station, Mrs Obhrai was contacted, acted as her interpreter – and was then allowed to take the tearful woman home.
The attacks got worse after the victim escaped again to try to get help. Once she made it to a help centre, but Mrs Obhrai found her and took her back to the house. In the early hours of the next morning, she came to her, held a kitchen knife to her neck and threatened to kill her. She told her that she would be buried in their back garden, and nobody would know.
Police believe that three years of hard work netted the naïve and vulnerable woman just £2,000 to send back to her four children in Hyderabad. Given her extreme hours, authorities estimated that she should have been paid more than £170,000.
Scotland Yard's Trafficking and Prostitution Unit eventually took on the case and travelled to India where they took dozens of statements. They also went back to her previous abusers to build the case that led to yesterday's convictions. Mr Obhrai was initially charged but did not stand trial on health grounds.
Detective Chief Inspector Nick Sumner said: "They controlled her by taking her passport and taking advantage of her lack of English and subsequent dependency on them for help with her visa. With the victim in their power, they abused her in every possible way."
In a statement after the trial, the victim said: "These people are dangerous they have ruined my life and kept me away from my children. Each should be punished for their wrongdoings."
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