Probable cause found in human trafficking case

LAWRENCEVILLE - On Wednesday, a Gwinnett Magistrate Court judge found probable cause to bind over to Superior Court human trafficking charges on four men accused of keeping immigrant women under lock and key since November.

Police said Shifiqat Ali; Vijay Bannerjee; Govino Vishwa and Farrukh Khan brought six women from India to perform as belly dancers at a Norcross nightclub and held them behind the dead-bolt locked doors of a Lilburn home when the women weren't working.

The club, Mehfil Bar, Grill and Entertainment, is at 1200 Rockbridge Road.

According to testimony from both sides, the women were only allowed to leave the house at 677 Sunfield Drive when escorted - or guarded - by Bannerjee and Vishwa, who performed in a band and also lived in the sparsely furnished home.

Lilburn police Detective Matthew Lake testified that mattresses were placed on the floor of the home, which contained a pool table, a table and a "couple of chairs." Crates of Ramen noodles and potatoes sat in the kitchen. The only way out of the home, he said, was through one of two doors the women didn't have keys to. The first-floor windows, he said, were painted shut.

The operation came to light when, on Jan. 10, police responded to a call about a fight at the residence. A man named Sam Khan reportedly entered the home through a second-floor window to see one of the women, Sushma Shirke, and was discovered in the shower. Another dancer called Ali, who came over and allegedly beat Sam up, though Lake said there wasn't enough evidence to file assault charges.

Defense attorney Max Hirsch, who represents Ali, told the court the fact that Sam was able to enter the home prosecutors said imprisoned the women is proof that it was, in fact, not secure enough.

Investigators believe Ali knew Sam Khan because Sam, a regular at the nightclub, owed Ali money.

Defense attorneys contend the women signed contracts in India and knew what the work conditions would be like before coming to Georgia. According to the contract, the women were to be paid a minimum salary of $1,000 per month plus 30 percent of all tips. It is believed they received only a fraction of that amount.

The women knew, defense attorneys said, that they would be confined to a location and accompanied by men at all times. They would also have to surrender their passports upon arrival in America, a stipulation Lake said is against the law.

Investigators said Khan - who sponsored the women's entertainment visas - and Ali own and manage the club. Both men live in Alabama. Bannerjee and Vishwa are believed to have been in charge of the women around the clock, though prosecutors said they took orders from Ali and Khan.

Magistrate Judge Gene Cantrell denied bond for all four men, saying he believes they are a flight risk.

Arrest warrants have been issued for another man, 29-year-old Victor Varaghese.

Four of the six women have allegedly left the country and the District Attorney's office said it is looking into whether they were coerced to do so.

"The allegations are that it was performed by an agent of the defendants and initiated by one of their attorneys," District Attorney Danny Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hirsch and Manubir Arora, Khan's lawyer, reportedly both denied the allegation.