Andrei Kudoyarov, director of Moscow school No. 1308 who was accused of accepting 240,000 rubles in bribes, died of a massive heart attack in a Moscow pretrial detention jail (SIZO) on October 8. His relatives and lawyers heard the news from media reports. Official confirmation came only on October 10.
The Kudoyarov case has once again cast a harsh light on Moscow pretrial detention centers, known as SIZO's or "investigative isolation wards" in Russian, where, according to the Moscow Helsinki Group, some 50-60 people die in custody each year.
Suspects often spend months or even years in brutal conditions among sick and violent prisoners while awaiting their day in court.
Moscow human rights advocate Aleksandr Brod believes the Kudoyarov case points to a massive problem in the Russian legal system.
"He had good recommendations, as a good teacher and a good manager," he says. "Of course, we need to investigate why he was placed in a SIZO, what he was accused of, and how realistic the accusations were."
"It is another matter that a man has died. He had problems with his health. He wasn't given timely medical treatment. All this gives reason for serious thought about the detention of suspects in investigative jails, about the use of torture, about the inhuman conditions, about pressure on lawyers who come to their clients in SIZOs, about the inadequate medical care. Our justice system has serious problems."
New Legislation Has Little Impact
Earlier this year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law eliminating mandatory prison terms for many economic crimes and softened the rules for releasing suspects with health issues from custody.
However, Valery Borshchov, head of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, told Interfax last week that only 30 percent of suspects are given house arrest or bail while awaiting trial since the Medvedev changes, whereas that figure was as high as 50 percent four years ago.
Journalist Zoya Svetova tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that judges are ignoring their prerogative to release suspects:
"District and municipal judges, in my opinion, are sabotaging the president's amendments that allow them to select means other than remand custody in cases of economic crimes," says journalist Zoya Svetova. " People are not being released under the president's amendments and other means are not being used, although they could order house arrest or bail."
Two women reading in their prison cell in an "investigative isolation ward" in Mozhaysk, near Moscow.
On October 24, a Moscow court denied a request to release businesswoman Natalya Gulevich from custody.
She has been held for more than a year -- with courts extending her detention at least six times -- on charges that she failed to repay a bank loan.
She suffers from several chronic illnesses and earlier this month the European Court of Human Rights accepted an emergency appeal on her behalf.
On October 11, Oleg Golobokov, who was being investigated for copyright infringement, died in a Moscow SIZO after being held for just 48 hours.
The official cause of death was a heart attack, but other reports indicate that he was handcuffed and showed signs of having been beaten when he was brought to the hospital.
And it has been almost two years since Hermitage Capital fund lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina SIZO after being held for more than a year on tax-evasion accusations.
That incident provoked international outrage and prompted the United States to impose travel bans on officials connected with the case.
President Medvedev has ordered an investigation. The same judge who repeatedly ordered Magnitsky's continued detention has at least twice extended the detention of businesswoman Gulevich.
Rights activists in Moscow are particularly concerned about several other cases.
Businessman Stanislav Kankia, accused of extortion, has suffered several heart attacks during his 17 months in custody.
Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died while in custody in 2009.
Former notary Vladimir Orlov is charged with attempted murder and being held in pretrial detention despite being blind and paralyzed.
He has been unable to participate in court hearings of his case because his health has deteriorated so badly.
The new rules allow judges considerable discretion, however, and some prisoners have managed to secure their release from SIZOs.
Late on October 20, a Moscow court ordered house arrest for Vladimir Tyurin (aka Tyurik), a reputed mafia "thief-in-law" who has been named as a crime boss since the early 1990s.
The 51-year-old Tyurin was arrested in November 2010 on an international arrest warrant from Spain, where he is accused of money laundering and criminal conspiracy.
The court ordered Tyurin released on health grounds -- he reportedly recently suffered a "hypertension episode" -- and because he has two young children. His common-law wife is Maria Maksakova, an opera singer and high-profile celebrity activist with the ruling United Russia party.
Remand 'Used To Pressure Suspects'
Kirill Kabanov, a member of President Medvedev's advisory council on human rights, told the Rosbalt news agency that judges and prosecutors are ignoring Medvedev's instructions in such matters.
"The president has a clear position that suspects must be treated first and then must answer before the law," Kabanov said. "But the law enforcement agencies and judges have formed their own caste that does not pay attention to the directives of the head of state."
"If a suspect needs to be held in a SIZO in order to pressure him, then he remains in custody regardless of his state of health. If it is profitable to release someone, then judges are happy to cite health reasons to justify doing so."
Defense lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov, who defended businesswoman Vera Trifonova before she died in a Moscow SIZO in April, believes Kudoyarov was held in pretrial custody in a bid to compel him to confess.
"In all civilized countries, holding a person in custody is an exception, but here it is the rule, unfortunately," he says. "His only sin was that he had not admitted his guilt."
"But what is the sense of holding in custody a person who has not committed a violent crime, murder, or some other horrible thing? Remove him from his office, from his job and that is all.
"Why hold people in barbaric conditions, when our prisons are already overflowing? And, to be blunt, they do not meet normal humane standards. Unfortunately, the investigator needed him to confess. And so they left him to rot in there."
He added that the "psychology of 1937," the height of Stalin's purges and show trials, still prevails among Russian judges.
Zoya Svetova insists that changing this judicial mentality is crucial to changing the current situation.
"The problem has to be solved in a comprehensive way," she says. "Lawyers must fight for their clients and use all available means. Our system is monstrous, beginning with the investigation, the prisons, the courts -- you can only break it if the whole world comes down on it. Maybe then the psychology of the judges will change and they won't be afraid to make compassionate rulings."
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story