By Connor Adams Sheets
A Hindu priest finally got some justice last week after being forced to toil for $50 a week in a Corona temple for seven years.
A jury awarded Devendra Shukla more than $2 million Dec. 15 after finding during an eight-day trial in federal court in Brooklyn that Sat Prakash Sharma, his wife Geeta and the Vishva Seva Ashram temple were civilly liable for forced labor, involuntary servitude and human trafficking against the 34-year-old Indian immigrant, according to Shukla’s lawyer, Sanjay Chaubey. Sat Sharma is the temple’s director and president and Geeta Sharma sits on its board.
“We feel very good, we feel vindicated, and my client feels that he finally got some justice, and he feels very hopeful he will see his wife and children, who he hasn’t seen in 10 years,” Chaubey said. “He is very grateful that he went from this servitude to being a liberated man, and he feels free.”
Krishnan Chittur, the Sharmas’ attorney, vehemently disagreed with the verdict, saying it “was contrary to the weight of the evidence” and that the court had provided him with a briefing schedule for proceedings to have the verdict overturned on appeal.
Before Shukla came to America, he was told he would be paid $500 per week and receive free room and board for working as a priest at the temple at 104-38 Corona Ave., but when he arrived, he was forced to live in a tiny, cell-like room and his employers paid him only $50 per week, for a total of $21,000 in seven years, Chaubey said.
He was forced to work days as long as 18 hours, doing all matter of tasks including ministering, construction work, janitorial duties and more, and the Sharmas used fear tactics to ensure he did not go to the authorities or flee his situation, according to Chaubey.
“They told him after 9/11 that if you do anything you could be arrested. They used every kind of emotional, legal, psych and financial force to keep him under their control and monitoring, and that was our case,” Chaubey said. “He was living in a basement cell, like a closet converted into a room in the temple. It was pathetic, that’s why the jury was so kind on him, we showed them photos of the conditions he lived in.”
The Sharmas also took away his passport and refused to renew his visa, despite their duty to do so, said Chaubey, therefore further limiting Shukla’s ability to flee.
Shukla escaped his near-slavery when some of the church’s attendees gained wind of his plight, Chaubey said. He is now working as a priest in a temple in Mahwah, N.J.
Shukla was awarded about $2.8 million by the jury, but the amount was lowered by $500,000 because Shukla may have improperly discussed certain details of the case with journalists, according to Chaubey.
Chittur contended that much of the evidence Chaubey introduced was “fabricated” and that Shukla was free to move about, was paid the full $500 per week, lived in a nice basement room, was running businesses via laptop and that witnesses countered many of his grievances.
“We believe that no rational person could have come to this verdict based on the evidence presented in court,” Chittur said. “I’m still trying to figure out why. He put up a good show, he burst out in tears, he claimed he hadn’t seen his kids in 10 years … those kinds of things may have affected it, I don’t know.
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.