Trial accusing NJ temple of human trafficking suspended as criminal investigation continues

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The lawsuit accusing leaders of a New Jersey temple of exploiting the workers they lured from India to build the world-class project has been halted as a federal criminal investigation into alleged human trafficking takes place. continues.

In a court case last week, a lawyer representing the leaders who run the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha temple, a Hindu sect known as BAPS, in Robbinsville, asked a federal judge to stay the lawsuit, writing that the “United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey has opened a criminal investigation into the same allegations or allegations substantially similar to those raised” in the trial.

The class action lawsuit, which was filed in May, alleges BAPS leaders lured around 200 Indian workers to the Mercer County religious campus and asked them to lie to U.S. Embassy officials during the talks. of visa that they were volunteers and that they “would do decorative painting or carving (nikashi) work on stones for use in the New Jersey temple.”

Instead, according to the lawsuit, the men allegedly cut and laid stones, removed trash, carried out roadwork and soaked stones in chemicals, all working 90 hours a week and earning around $ 1.20. time.

The lawsuit has since spread, alleging that practices occurred at other BAPS temples across the country. He accuses the Hindu sect of having violated the law on the protection of victims of trafficking.

Paul Fishman, the former New Jersey US attorney who represents BAPS, said in a statement Wednesday that BAPS “will fully cooperate with the federal investigation and draw attention to the many factual and cultural inaccuracies in the civil complaint.”

BAPS has denied the allegations made in the lawsuit.

Fishman wrote to the judge last week that under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, all civil actions should be stayed while a criminal investigation is underway into similar allegations made in the trial.

United States District Judge Anne E. Thompson, who is presiding over the civil trial, agreed and suspended the trial while the criminal investigation unfolded.

Fishman also wrote in a court record that immigration officials have been allowing work visas for workers to help build BAPS temples for 20 years and “that federal, state and local government agencies have regularly visited and inspected all of them. these construction projects “.

On the day the lawsuit was filed in the spring, the FBI raided the Robbinsville temple. We don’t know how their investigation is going. The New York Times first reported that investigators examine “allegations of violations of labor and immigration law”.

A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

The lawsuit describes years of allegedly abusive and inhumane working conditions the men were subjected to as temple construction began and BAPS continually expanded religious property in New Jersey.

According to the lawsuit, the men had their passports confiscated upon arrival in the United States and were “forced to live and work in a gated and guarded compound that they were not allowed to leave.” Security guards were posted outside the compound and cameras monitored the grounds.

The men could work for up to 40 days in a row without a day off, according to the lawsuit, and had to work in the rain or snow.

In addition to the long days and the minimum wage, the lawsuit alleges that the men’s work was “very dangerous”. A worker, Moham Lal, is said to have “died while being subjected to forced labor at the temple”, according to the lawsuit.

Lawyers representing the workers changed their lawsuit in October, alleging that the exploitation was not limited to New Jersey. He identified four other BAPS temples in the country where workers were said to have suffered similar conditions.

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Joe Atmonavage can be reached at [email protected].

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