While Russian investigators have said they are focusing on a household gas explosion as the cause of a deadly New Year's Eve apartment collapse in Magnitogorsk, the wife of a Kyrgyz immigrant says her husband was arrested, beaten, and accused by local police of having involvement in the blast.
Halimakhon, who gave only her first name in a January 24 telephone interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, said she saw her husband, Husniddin Zainabidinov, at the city's Detention Facility No. 2 the day after his January 16 arrest.
"[Officers] made him lie down on his belly, and put bricks on his back and gave him electric shocks," she said, recounting what Zainabidinov told her. "When he lost consciousness, they poured water on him and continued torturing him. They broke his nose. His face is bruised."
Halimakhon also said that Zainabidinov told her that police suspected him of involvement in the December 31 apartment-building explosion, and showed him photos of "some bearded men" and asked for information about them.
"He told them that he didn't know the men, but the officers didn't believe him," Halimakhon said.
RFE/RL was unable to independently determine what, if any, charges have been filed against Zainabidinov.
Suspected Gas Leak
Although terrorism has been cited in the Russian media, particularly after the Islamic State extremist group took credit for both the apartment blast that killed at least 39 people and a subsequent minibus explosion that killed three, the federal Investigative Committee has maintained that it is focusing on a gas leak as the most likely cause.
"The investigators have been considering every possible theory of the tragedy since day one," Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said on January 18, a day after the SITE Intelligence Group reported that IS had claimed responsibility. "The theory of a household gas explosion remains a priority. Please note that forensic technicians have found no traces of explosives or their components in the samples taken from the scene," Petrenko said.
In a later statement the same day, the spokeswoman said that "I suggest that journalists do not trust statements from terrorist organizations."
Police and prosecutors have told RFE/RL that Zainabidinov was arrested because he is wanted by Kyrgyzstan, and that he faces extradition to his home country. According to the Russian authorities, he was found guilty by a Kyrgyz court of involvement in the 2010 ethnic clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the country's south.
Halimakhon told RFE/RL that the ethnic clashes, in which more than 400 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced, forced the family to leave their native Jalal-Abat region. The couple and their baby daughter live in Magnitogorsk, where Zainabidinov works as a cook.
However, she said her husband was unaware of any arrest warrant against him. Contacted by RFE/RL, the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow said it was trying to confirm whether Zainabidinov is wanted by Kyrgyzstan.
Zainabidinov’s defense lawyer, Bahrom Hamroev, seconded the claim that his client has been tortured in custody, and said that Magnitogorsk police have intensified pressure on labor migrants from Central Asia since the blast.
"Now law-enforcement agencies are trying to change his case in a different direction, claiming that Zainabidinov is wanted by Kyrgyzstan," the lawyer told RFE/RL.
Russian media have reported that police in Magnitogorsk have singled out Central Asians for document checks in recent weeks. Komsomolskaya Pravda has reported that police have raided construction sites and a bazaar where many Central Asian nationals work.
Police have denied the reports, telling Russian media that the raids were part of routine “preventative” measures.