DECEMBER 17 2010 05:04h

Hindu priest awarded $2.3M in pay, damages

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NEW YORK, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- A Hindu priest was awarded $2.8 million after a jury concluded he had been forced to work for years as a virtual indentured servant at a New York ashram.

But Devandra Shukla, 34, who grew up poor in India's rural Uttar Pradesh state, was also ordered to pay the ashram owners $500,000 for slander for alleging they treated him like a "slave," the federal court jury in New York said. So his net award is $2.3 million.

Shukla had alleged Satya Sharma and his wife, Geeta, hired him in 2000 to work at their New York City ashram as a priest with a promise of $500 a week, plus free room and board.

But when he got there they forced him to do janitorial and construction work in addition to his spiritual duties and paid him only $50 a week, or $2,100 over seven years, he alleged.

The Sharmas also confiscated his passport, forced him to live in a windowless room like a prison cell and made him minister from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., Shukla attorney Sanjay Chaubey told jurors.

The Sharmas, in turn, accused Shukla of trying to get permanent U.S. residence and countersued for defamation and slander.

The jurors concluded the Sharmas had illegally forced Shukla to minister 18 hours a day and to work as a loader, pipe cutter, electrician and painter, the New York Daily News reported.

"From the temple of slavery to the temple of justice," the News quoted Chaubey as saying after the verdict was announced.

A tearful Shukla said he hoped he would soon see his wife and children in India, who he has not seen for nearly 10 years.

The Sharmas' lawyer, Krishnan Chittur, called the verdict "crazy" and said he would ask the judge to set it aside.