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Four charged in smuggling of Ukrainians

Four people from the former Soviet Union were arrested yesterday on charges they smuggled immigrants into the city from the Ukraine and then tried to shake them down for tens of thousands of dollars in a labor trafficking scheme, officials said.

The defendants, three of whom are women, were accused in charges filed in Brooklyn and Manhattan with threatening victims with beatings and the rape of family members if they didn't pay smuggling fees ranging from $14,000 to $17,000. Usurious interest as high as 4.5 percent a month was charged on the unpaid balances, investigators said.

One of the smuggled immigrants was brought in by the ring from the Ukraine to Kennedy Airport in February and provided a job in a furniture factory in Brooklyn after surrendering his passport, Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Chan said in a letter requesting that bail be denied in the case.

In a related case filed in federal court in Manhattan, prosecutors alleged in a criminal complaint that one immigrant was forced to work 12- to 14-hour shifts in a store in Brooklyn without pay or breaks. When the worker quit and found another position, three of the defendants, including Oksana Avram, 34, of Manhattan, threatened to take away the victim's children and put the victim into prostitution, according to the federal criminal complaint.

When the victim went into hiding, Avram and two other defendants, Oktavian Kupchanko, 52, of Manhattan, and Olga Maksimiyk, 42, of Brooklyn, made threatening calls to the victim's family members in the Ukraine.

The suspected members of the smuggling gang were also accused of preparing false identification documents and visa applications, and coaching potential immigrants to give false answers during visa interviews at the U.S. embassy in Kiev.

Prosecutors said they were helped by a number of cooperating witnesses who tape-recorded conversations with the defendants. In one conversation, Avram reportedly was overheard telling one victim, "You were a beggar and you will croak like one. ... Pay the money, get your passport back, pay the money, get your passport ... you jerk," according to court papers.

Also charged in the case was Inessa Shurigina, 61, of Brooklyn. A fifth person, Leonid Galchik, who allegedly ran the Ukraine end of the operation, wasn't arrested and is considered a fugitive, officials said.

Avram, Shurigina, Kupchanko and Maksimiyk all were ordered held without bail by Brooklyn federal magistrate Judge Robert Levy. The defendants entered not guilty pleas at their arraignments. They each face 20 years in prison if convicted of the smuggling and trafficking charges.