MOSCOW -- For the Russian media, it was a heartbreaking and highly emotional story.
In January 2012, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, 92-year-old war veteran Nikolai Melnikov was beaten and robbed at home during the night. The assailants held him face down, kicked him while he lay on the floor, and stole money, medals, and jewelry.
With all the media attention, the local police moved quickly and arrested Yorgin Tillaev, a 31-year-old street cleaner from Samarkand, Uzbekistan. A few days after Tillaev's arrest his family appeared on a prime-time Russian talk show and begged the victim of the crime for his forgiveness.
A year later, the tables have turned. Tillaev has been released due to a lack of evidence and his family say they were duped by the TV production crew. The case has once again thrown into the spotlight Russia's treatment of its labor migrants.
The facts of the case are still murky. According to the police, documents and a watch belonging to Melnikov were found in Tillaev's possession, although the Uzbek has said he doesn't know how they got there. Tillaev was arrested on the streets where he worked a day after Melnikov was robbed.
"When I left my house, a guy in civilian clothes asked me to show my documents and told me to follow him. I said that I didn't speak Russian very well, but he took me into this building," Tillaev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
"I saw two guys in uniform and an old man [Melnikov]. The guys asked the man, 'Did you see this guy yesterday?' The old guy was unsure but he said, 'Looks like him.' But then the police looked at my shoes and said, 'Not him.'"
Lack Of Evidence
A former shepherd who came to Russia in 2008, Tillaev claims he was taken to see Melnikov three times before the war veteran positively identified him as a culprit. After being arrested, Tillaev spent six months in pretrial detention.
But on September 12, 2012, a Kaliningrad court ruled that there was not enough evidence to keep him in jail. He was released, but is not allowed to travel outside Kaliningrad, a standard procedure after someone has been charged in Russia. It is unclear whether prosecutors are planning to pursue the case further.
Sergei Myasoyedov, Tillaev's lawyer, says his client has been a victim of public opinion and politics. After speaking to his client, he says, he decided to represent him pro bono. "I realized that all the evidence was falsified," Myasoyedov says. "None of the charges could be explained either by logic or common sense."
"The man said that there were two assailants who broke in and they forced his face down to the ground," Myasoyedov adds. "Under these circumstances even a healthy young man would have doubts about who he saw."
Central Asia Suspicions
Myasoyedov notes that, by law, police conducting searches of foreign workers' property can do so only in the presence of a translator and a lawyer.
An estimated 10 million-12 million migrant laborers, most from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, work in Russia. Many work illegally in the shadow economy.
Dozens of migrants are killed every year in racially motivated attacks. Recently, authorities in Moscow announced the creation of volunteer squads to help track down illegal migrants, a move that has been criticized by rights activists.
Putin has called for tougher punishment for illegal migration and has said migrants should pass exams in the Russian language, history, and culture as a precondition to working in the country -- a proposal that has since been signed into law. The Kremlin, however, is also keen to see interethnic harmony and Putin has supported a proposal to ban media from mentioning the ethnicity of criminal suspects.
'Let Them Beg For Forgiveness'
Tillaev's lawyer, Myasoyedov, has now turned his attention to the TV show, which aired the segment on the case in February 2012.
Hosted by Andrei Malakhov, "Let Them Talk" is broadcast on prime time on the state-controlled Channel One and is widely popular across Russia. In the February show, Tillaev's wife and sister are brought out onto the stage in front of a hushed audience. Bowing and weeping, they apologize profusely to Melnikov, who waves them away.
WATCH: The episode of "Let Them Talk" with Tillaev's relatives and Melnikov
But since the show Tillaev's family have said that they only went on "Let Them Talk" because the show's production team led them to believe that it would help their relative's case. "My sister and wife were told that if they apologized to the old man then I would be released," Tillaev says. "My wife was taken into a room and told that by an Uzbek lady."
RFE/RL has contacted "Let Them Talk" about Tillaev's allegations, but has not yet heard from the show.
Temur Muhammedov, the head of Uzbekistan, an NGO that campaigns for migrant rights, says that he thinks "Let Them Talk" has tarnished the reputation of Uzbek migrants. "We want to complain about this program. They should apologize," he says. "There was no presumption of innocence. Why were they brought to their knees?”
Myasoyedov, Tillaev's lawyer, has said his client is planning to sue the TV station but is waiting for the court's final decision in the case.
Written by Luke Allnutt, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Umid Bobomatov