By Sonia Elks
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian human rights activists said on Friday they had freed 12 Central Asians held captive as modern-day slaves in the basement of a Moscow food store, some of them for as long as a decade.
The allegations - which are being investigated by the authorities - could not immediately be confirmed independently, but activists said they were consistent with reports of hundreds of thousands of such "slaves".
"Six years ago, a survey on human trafficking was conducted at the U.N.'s request and said that there are half a million to one million people in Russia who are practically living as slaves here," said rights activist Danila Medvedev.
Activists said they had handed in statements on the case to investigators, but that no one had yet been arrested.
Witnesses said a child of four had been among those rescued from the store on the outskirts of the Russian capital, which attracts many migrant workers from former Soviet republics in Central Asia such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
A total of three young children, five women and four men had been freed in the raid, which took place on Tuesday, said activists.
Another woman was not freed, however, and a 14-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy who had ran away earlier were still missing, they said.
Two of the female rescued workers said they had been held captive for more than 10 years and forced to work in the shop. They said they had been regularly beaten and threatened to prevent them escaping.
Video footage of the raid on the store filmed by the activists showed 35-year-old Bakiya Kasimova, still wearing her work apron, being led outside by her sobbing mother, who said she had not seen her daughter for 10 years.
"They were beating me and beating me. They beat me with their hands, with batons, with a roll of metal foil," Kasimova told Reuters.
Kasimova said she had been lured from her native Kazakhstan by the promise of work in Moscow, but had instead been forced to work unpaid in the shop.
"EVERYBODY WAS IN ON IT"
She told a news conference that they had been given one minute to eat rotten food at meal times and had been banned from talking to customers or leaving the shop. They were beaten if they disobeyed rules and never received any money, she said.
Leila Ashirova said she thought many people were aware of their fate.
"I think in the area, everybody was in on it," she said. "I think they were given bribes to stay quiet".
The captives tried to escape several times and begged customers to help but people pretended to help only to call their captors instead, the freed workers said.
Kasimova said she had been raped and claimed they had witnessed one woman being beaten to death after she had tried to escape.
Activists said the captives included related family members, and children who were born into forced labor. Two children had allegedly been taken away by their captors, who later claimed they had died. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
Rights activist Danila Medvedev said the Russian authorities were unwilling to face the fact that there might be slavery in Russia.
"There might be 50,000 or 100,000 such slaves in Moscow, but as our law enforcement agencies are totally censoring the word 'slavery' and are denying that this problem exists, we don't know how many of them there are in reality," he said.
The shop's owners had several other stores, he said, saying between 20 and 40 women could still be imprisoned by them.
Russia attracts millions of migrant workers from the former Soviet states, but many enter the country illegally and work for a pittance.
Many also face xenophobia, with opinion polls showing that racial intolerance is rising nationally, and racist attacks are not uncommon.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks; Editing by Andrew Osborn)