MOSCOW -- Leila Ashirova and Bakiya Kasymova had every reason to think their ordeal was over when rights workers freed them from what the women described as a decade of slavery in a basement Moscow supermarket.
Activists took up their cause. They spoke out in the media with stories of beatings and captivity. And eventually the Russian authorities opened a criminal investigation.
The scandal then went international as the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said its embassy in Moscow "regularly" received information about its citizens being enslaved in Moscow.
But then, suddenly, the tables turned.
On November 9, police accused Ashirova and Kasymova of residing on Russian territory illegally without proper papers -- documents the victims say were seized by their captors long ago. Their lawyers interpreted that as an implicit threat to deport them.
And on November 13, prosecutors abruptly dropped the criminal investigation against the women's captors, claiming there was no evidence of a crime.
The two are now effectively battling deportation and have no assurances of their safety, according to Irina Biryukova, the lawyer representing Ashirova, a 26-year-old Uzbek who came to Moscow from Kazakhstan a decade ago.
"The girls are in a really difficult situation because they are no longer connected to a criminal investigation," Biryukova says. "That means in the eyes of the authorities they are on Russian territory illegally. [The authorities] would, of course, like to deport them somehow. But we are trying everything to stop this from happening."
'No Evidence Of Slavery'
Ashirova and Kasymova were among 12 Kazakhs and Uzbeks, including children, who were freed from a Moscow basement supermarket by activists and journalists on October 30. The women were said to have been lured to Russia with the promise of employment, and told investigators they had been held there for 10 years and beaten when they tried to leave the premises. They say they were paid nothing for their work.
Ashirova was 16 years old when she arrived. In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, she says she witnessed some harrowing incidents during her decade of captivity.
"I saw one young woman who was carried out dead. Another woman was taken from there forcibly by her parents because she had not come home in so long," Ashirova says. "Another girl left because one of her legs had become gangrenous. She'd worked there 10 or 15 years; she was there even before us."
But Yelena Rossokhina, a spokeswoman for the Moscow prosecutor's office, tells RFE/RL that there is no evidence of slavery.
"They say it's slavery and that they were held for several years. These Uzbek women weren't held by anyone; they visited shops, they visited clinics, and they didn't appeal to anyone about being held captive," Rossokhina says. "How can this be sufficient grounds for a criminal case? It's a very big question. Simple as that."
Oleg Melnikov of the rights organization Alternative dismisses the prosecutors' claims as "deceit." Melnikov, whose organization organized the operation to rescue the women, says some captives were allowed out only to go to the hospital, where they gave birth to children who were subsequently taken from them.
He accuses the authorities of obstructing and whitewashing the case to keep it under wraps. He also says the issue is being systematically ignored by many local media outlets. "It seems to me that having slavery in Moscow in the 21st century is a very big problem, given the alleged stability that we have," Melnikov says. "That's why they are ignoring it and not allowing a criminal investigation. Then there's the question of corruption."
Fighting For Their Lives
Anastasia Denisova of the Civil Assistance rights organization says that Ashirova and Kasymova are determined to pursue the case to its conclusion, if only because they fear for their own safety. "They realize that if they don't go all the way to the end now that it won't be safe for them either here or at home if these people (their former captors) remain at large," she says.
Lawyer Biryukova says they are appealing against the dropping of the criminal investigation.
Danila Medvedev, head of the Transhumanitarian rights group, insisted that Ashirova and Kasymova's case was not isolated. He told journalists this month that there were between 500,000 and 2 million people who "effectively live in slavery" across Russia.
Activists identify Ashirova and Kasymova's captors as Saken Muzdybaev and Dzhansulu Istanbekova, both Russian citizens from southern Kazakhstan.
According to Melnikov, Sholpan Istanbekova, the sister of Dzhansulu, was convicted of using slave labor in 2002 in a nearby Moscow supermarket. However, Istanbekova was released a year later after President Vladimir Putin granted her a presidential pardon on humanitarian grounds.
Attorneys for Ashirova and Kasymova believe the two are facing potential deportation because they initiated the criminal case against their alleged captors. What will happen with the other 10 freed women is unclear.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report