By NIKHILA GILL and HEATHER TIMMONS
Published: April 5, 2012
NEW DELHI — The couple accused of abusing a 13-year-old maid and locking her in their apartment while they went on vacation, a story that has renewed attention on the exploitation of children in India, did no such thing, the couple’s lawyer said Thursday.
The maid is not under age, has not been abused and was not locked in the apartment, said the lawyer, Shailendra Bhardwaj. Nor was she watched with security cameras, as her statement to a court asserted, he said.
The couple, Dr. Sanjay Verma and Dr. Sumita Verma, were arrested Wednesday after their return from a trip to Thailand and were being held by the police on preliminary charges of violating laws related to child labor and bondage.
The girl, who has not been publicly identified, was rescued from the house by a firefighter last Thursday and was being held in protective custody.
Her accusations of abuse have been front-page news in India since the case came to light a week ago.
Mr. Bhardwaj said that the Vermas treated the maid like part of the family. “She was treated like a child, and we will shortly be releasing videos of the girl playing Holi with the family and Dr. Verma’s daughter,” he said in a telephone interview. “We don’t know who prompted her to make the report.”
Holi is the tradition of dousing others with colored water and pigment associated with the Hindu spring festival.
Mr. Bhardwaj said the maid had told the couple that she was 18, not 13, as reported by child welfare officials. He said she was left in their home in the Dwarka suburb of New Delhi at her request. Before the couple left for their vacation in Bangkok, he said, they asked the girl to stay at the wife’s mother’s house, but she declined.
“They decided to leave her in their house at Dwarka because she said she was more comfortable there,” he said.
“She was given a key and 500 rupees,” a little more than $9, “to purchase daily groceries,” Mr. Bhardwaj said. “She was also asked to keep the door locked and not open it for anybody except the couple.”
The girl said the couple had locked her in their apartment, according to child welfare officials. She said she was paid nothing, barely fed and was beaten if her work was not satisfactory. She said her uncle had sold her to a job placement agency, which sold her to the couple, officials said.
Ravi Kant, the lawyer for Shakti Vahini, a nongovernmental organization that combats child trafficking, discounted the couple’s denials.
The girl’s statement, made in front of a magistrate, carries a great deal of weight in court, he said. “Even if the child goes back on her word, under coercion or for money, her statement will still hold,” Mr. Kant said. A medical report corroborates the girl’s assertions of being pinched and hit, he added.
He said that employers were responsible for verifying an employee’s age, regardless of what the employee may have claimed, and that only a birth or school certificate was considered legal proof.
Indian law allows children as young as 14 to work a maximum of six hours a day in nonhazardous work, but younger children are legally prohibited from working as servants, a provision that is widely flouted.
Mr. Bhardwaj, the couple’s lawyer, said he would request bail when the couple appears before a magistrate at the Dwarka district court, at a hearing expected on Monday.
Mr. Kant said his organization would strongly oppose the request. “Such people need exemplary punishment,” he said.