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Posted on Fri, Jul. 22, 2005

Couple who paid alien $3,000 for 2 years' work gets probation


Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA - (KRT) - Even U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson didn't know what to make of all the conflicting information in the case of Sri Lankan maid Chandra Bulathwatte.

Had the woman been held in virtual slavery for two years by her husband-and-wife employers, Maher and Manal Jishi? Or was she like thousands of other illegal immigrants who are treated adequately but work off the books for criminally low wages?

In the end, Wolfson decided to disregard some arguments on both sides and focus on the crimes to which the Jishis pleaded guilty in federal court in Camden, N.J. In April, Maher Jishi pleaded guilty to concealing or harboring an illegal alien. His wife pleaded guilty to failure to report knowledge of a felony.

Friday, Wolfson sentenced both to one year of probation. Maher Jishi must serve six months of unsupervised house arrest, and both must pay fines.

Bulathwatte worked for the Jishi family first at their home in Marlton, N.J., then at a home in Washington Township, N.J., for nearly two years. In February 2004, Bulathwatte, then 45, ran to a neighbor's house in her bare feet and without a coat. The neighbor called the police.

Prosecutors said Bulathwatte had been held against her will through threats and coercion, and they said the Jishis had taken her passport and forced her to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for almost no pay.

Defense attorneys said that Bulathwatte was free to come and go and that she called her family in Sri Lanka often. Wolfson noted that she had a room in the Washington Township home that had its own exit.

"There are things that just don't fit together," Wolfson said. "I understand there can be other, more subtle pressures ... but there was no indication there was any physical restraint."

Either way, the Jishis admitted paying Bulathwatte around $3,000 for two years' work. When Maher Jishi pleaded guilty, he paid Bulathwatte back wages and damages of $225,000.

Bulathwatte returned to Sri Lanka after the plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Carrig said. She said that Bulathwatte comes from a primitive area of the country and that the reimbursement money "will make a huge difference in her life."

Both Maher Jishi, a native of Lebanon who owns a computer company, and his wife apologized before sentencing.

"I just want to say I'm really sorry for what happened, and I'd like to move on with my life," he said.


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