GENEVA — A Swiss criminal court on Friday sentenced four members of the billionaire Hinduja family with between four and 4 1/2 years in prison for exploiting their vulnerable domestic workers while at the same time dismissing the more severe charges of human trafficking.

The abuse by Indian-born tycoon Prakash Hinduja and his wife, son and daughter-in-law included seizing the passports of the workers, mostly illiterate Indians employed at their luxurious lakeside villa in Geneva. The Hindujas also paid the workers in Indian rupees — not Swiss francs — in banks at home, which they couldn’t access.

The four were not in court in Geneva though a fifth defendant — Najib Ziazi, the family’s business manager — was in attendance. He received an 18 months suspended sentence.

Lawyers representing the defendants said they would appeal.

The court said the four were guilty of exploiting the workers and providing unauthorized employment, such as by giving meager if any health benefits and paying wages that were less than one-tenth the pay for such jobs in Switzerland. It dismissed the trafficking charges on the grounds that the staff understood what they were getting into, at least in part.

The four Hindujas also barred the domestic workers from leaving the villa and forcing them to work excruciatingly long hours, among other things.

Prakash Hinduja and his wife Kamal received each 4 1/2 year sentences, while their son Ajay and his wife, Namrata, were sentenced each to four years. The trial opened June 10.

Last week, it emerged in criminal court that the family — which has roots in India — had reached an undisclosed settlement with the plaintiffs. Geneva prosecutors opened the case for alleged illegal activity including exploitation, human trafficking and violation of Swiss labor laws.

The family set up residence in Switzerland in the late 1980s, and Prakash was already convicted in 2007 on similar, if lesser charges, though prosecutors say he persisted in employing people without proper paperwork anyway.

Swiss authorities have already seized diamonds, rubies, a platinum necklace and other jewelry and assets from the family in anticipation that they could be used to pay for legal fees and possible penalties.

Prosecutors said that at times the staffers — in jobs like cooks or house help — were forced to work up to 18 hours a day with little or no vacation time off. One ailing employee got stuck with a hospital bill of over 7,000 francs (dollars), and the family only agreed to pay half, the court said.

Employees worked even later hours for receptions and slept in the basement of the villa in the upscale Cologny neighborhood — sometimes on a mattress on the floor, prosecutors said. They described a “climate of fear” instituted by Kamal Hinduja.

Some employees allegedly spoke only Hindi and were paid their wages in Indian rupees in banks back home that they couldn’t access.

A separate tax case brought by Swiss authorities is pending against Prakash Hinduja, who obtained Swiss citizenship in 2000.

Along with three brothers, he is a leader of an industrial conglomerate in sectors including information technology, media, power, real estate and health care. Forbes magazine currently puts the net worth of the Hinduja family at some $20 billion.



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