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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Police Close Teen Slave Shop

Luring them from Kazakhstan with promises of a good life in Moscow, a grocery store kept at least 11 teenagers as virtual slaves and took away their shoes to discourage them from escaping, police said Friday.

"They were real prisoners ... slaves," said Kirill Mazurin, the spokesman for the police's criminal investigation directorate.

Police found two boys and three girls in the basement of the store at 21 Angarskaya Ulitsa when they raided it Tuesday, the spokesman said. Six others had fled since last September and were rounded up by police patrols.

The teenagers, aged 16 to 18, were being held in a juvenile detention center. The store, located in northwestern Moscow, is owned by Orlovsky Trade House, which also operates three other stores in the city, Mazurin said.

If the other stores had used forced labor, they probably have hidden any young workers by now, he said.

The 11 teenagers were recruited by the store manager, Zhanna Islambekova, a native of Kazakhstan, who targeted the children of poor families, the police spokesman said.

As soon as they arrived in Moscow, Islambekova took their passports and locked up their shoes and coats, Mazurin said.

The store manager kept one girl as a maid in her apartment but had half of her head shaved, believing she would be too embarrassed to flee, the spokesman said.

The teenagers also were warned that their parents would "suffer" if they tried to escape, Mazurin said.

He said several of them told police they had been periodically beaten.

The teenagers worked long hours, with unloading trucks and sweeping floors among their chores, Mazurin said. A nap was their only "fun." Some slept on the concrete floor in the Angarskaya store's dimly lit and damp basement, he said.

Police failed to nab Islambekova, and she fled to Kazakhstan, Mazurin said. She faces charges of beatings and illegal detention.

Authorities first heard about the alleged scam in September from a teenager who fled the store and wound up in a city juvenile detention center. But no immediate steps were taken, even after at least five other Kazakh teenagers were placed in the center and told similar stories.

"This report somehow got shelved," Mazurin said, blaming red tape for the delay of several months before detectives from his directorate's juvenile unit raided the store.

The 11 teens are being held because they lack the documents to reside legally in the Russian capital. Police say they eventually will be sent back to Kazakhstan.

Employees at Islambekova's store denied that the teenagers were being used as slave labor.

"They were adult people ... working normally," said one woman, smiling.

"We laughed when we saw all these lies about our store on television [this week]," said the woman, an ethnic Kazakh, who would not give her name.

The investigation was continuing, and it was possible that store employees could be charged in the case, officials at the Koptevo district prosecutor's office said Friday.

As for customers, they seemed unimpressed by the allegations of teenage slavery at the store located on the first floor of their apartment block.

"I don't want to know what they are doing there to each other," said Anna Garmash, 62.

She and another customer both said they would continue to buy their groceries in the store as long as its products remained cheaper than in other shops.