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A Russian schoolteacher in Nizhny Novogorod has been reportedly fired because she refused to provide authorities with a list of students and teachers from her school who had taken part in opposition protests. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Friends, colleagues and civil society activists are demanding the reinstatement of a maverick school director in Russia who they say was fired because she refused to give authorities the names of students and staff who joined anti-government protests.

Supporters of Yelena Moiseyeva say her dismissal was the latest salvo in a state campaign to stamp out dissent nationwide ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

Moiseyeva, who had worked for 15 years as head of School No. 24 in Nizhny Novgorod, said she had been informed of her dismissal in a letter that cited a clause in Russia's Labor Code allowing authorities to fire staff at state institutions without an explanation.

"Things like this happen in life," she wrote in a Facebook post revealing her firing. "We'll get through it!"

A relative of Moiseyeva's told local media that she had been purged because she had angered the authorities by declining to provide them with a list of students and teachers who had taken part in January rallies in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

The relative, whose name was not published, told NN.ru, a local news site in Nizhny Novgorod, that officials sought to oust Moiseyeva even before the protests that followed the arrest of Navalny, who survived a nerve-agent poisoning last August that he blames on President Vladimir Putin.

"Every time there was an election [coming up] they demanded things from her, but never got what they asked for," the relative was quoted as saying on June 22.

Russians will vote in elections for local and regional posts and the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on September 17-19. The elections come amid a continuing slide in the popularity of the Kremlin-backed ruling party United Russia, which is hoping to maintain its absolute majority in the Duma.

Yelena Moiseyeva (file photo)
Yelena Moiseyeva (file photo)

Moiseyeva declined a request from RFE/RL for an interview, saying only: "I don't want to be made into an idol."

But in a conversation with NN.ru, she appeared to confirm that she had been asked to implicate students in protest activity.

"I myself was shocked…that we must reveal who goes to protests," she said in the interview. "And I said, 'Sorry, I can scold [them] myself, but I won't snitch on the children.'"

Aleksandr Pichugin, a Nizhny Novgorod journalist who knows Moiseyeva, told RFE/RL that the educator was afraid of consequences if she spoke out about the alleged political motivations of her firing.

Nizhny Novgorod
Nizhny Novgorod


"The authorities want the September elections to pass smoothly," he said in written comments. "And people like Moiseyeva get in the way."

Government critics and election monitors say that school employees and other people working for state-run institutions face pressure to vote for United Russia or other Kremlin-backed candidates in elections.

Pichugin asserted that in Nizhny Novgorod, every school had been instructed to ensure that staff vote for United Russia, but Moiseyeva opposed the order. "That's why they fired her and kept silent," he said.

'School Of Dialogue'

Staff members at School No. 24 have published an online petition calling for her reinstatement. They praised what they said was her history of championing progressive and sometimes unorthodox teaching methods and a respectful attitude toward students' views that gave her educational establishment the nickname School of Dialogue.

"She built a signature school founded on the principles of democratization, political and religious neutrality, the subjectivity of every student and teacher," they wrote. "A school that has its own stance and is ready to defend it."

Government critics denounced the move as a sign that Russia was descending into a Stalinist climate of 'stukachestvo' -- a word that denotes the act of informing on people to the authorities.

"It's the era of lowlifes," Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist who has suffered two sudden illnesses he suspects were poisoning attacks prompted by his advocacy for U.S. sanctions against Moscow, wrote of the Russian authorities. "Backstabbing and stukachestvo are their main 'virtues.'"

The nationwide protests in January, and two smaller protest waves in early February and April, provoked a sweeping state crackdown on opposition in Russia, precipitating dozens of court cases against participants and a separate legal proceedings that led to the outlawing of Navalny's political network and prompted many supporters to flee the country.

'Patriotic Education'

The false notion that the rallies were attended overwhelmingly by youth encouraged and often misled by the opposition movement was peddled by Russian state media and actively promoted by officials of all stripes. In the weeks that followed the rallies, several Navalny aides were charged with "inciting minors to protest," a crime in Russia.

In the weeks that followed the January rallies, students accused of participating in the demonstrations were dismissed. One such incident prompted national coverage after the students sued their university for what they said was their unlawful expulsion. "We need to prove this is illegal and unjust," Yaroslav Pavlyukov, the lawyer representing the students, said at the time.

Moiseyeva publicly opposed this campaign and criticized the government's program of "patriotic education," a curriculum aimed at inculcating concepts like "love for the Motherland", aversion to Western culture, and what many historians call a whitewashed version of Russia's past.

In her interview with NN.ru, Moiseyeva said she plans to go to court to protest her dismissal. She said she was proud of changes she brought to School No. 24 during her 15-year tenure as director, and the legacy of open discussion she had left behind.

"What does this prove?" she said of her firing. "That people studied in a tolerant school, that they were listened to, and that they learned how to stand by their convictions. I understand that all that was not in vain."

Journalist Ogulsapar Muradova at her son's wedding party in Ashgabat in 2002.

RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova was one of the few journalists in Turkmenistan who dared to report about human rights abuses in the secretive, authoritarian state.

Muradova paid the ultimate price for her work. She was arrested on trumped up charges on June 18, 2006. Amid allegations and signs that she was tortured while in custody, she died in prison three months later at the age of 58 in September 2016.

Turkmenistan has never conducted an effective investigation into Muradova's death.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) has said that Turkmen authorities were responsible, and the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has vowed to continue its campaign to bring those involved in her death to justice.

Muradova had joined RFE/RL's Turkmen Service as an Ashgabat correspondent in 2006.

She filed reports about the hardships ordinary people faced in the energy-rich Central Asian country.

She also worked for the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), a Europe-based independent organization that monitors and reports on Turkmenistan's human rights abuses.

Muradova was arrested along with two other activists -- her brother Sapardurdy Khajiev and journalist Annakurban Amanklychev -- as well as her three children. Her children were released two weeks later.

Muradova, Khajiev, and Amanklychev were initially accused of espionage. But at a closed trial on August 25, 2006, they were sentenced to up to seven years in prison on charges of illegally possessing ammunition.

Rights groups have condemned the charges as a baseless, politically motivated ploy to punish the trio for their work.

A memorial to slain journalists in Bayeux, France, which includes the name of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. (file photo)
A memorial to slain journalists in Bayeux, France, which includes the name of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. (file photo)

Amanklychev and Khajiev went on to serve their full sentences. But Muradova's family learned on September 13 that she had died in prison. Her body was returned to the family the following day.

Turkmen officials first claimed Muradova had committed suicide. Later, they changed their story and said she had died from natural causes.

But relatives of Muradova who saw her body say there was a deep wound on her forehead and a dark mark around her neck that could be consistent with strangling.

They also said open wounds and bruises on her hands and legs suggested she'd been tortured.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Turkmen law-enforcement official said in late in 2006 that Muradova died from torture at the hands of National Security Ministry officers who interrogated her.

Muradova had been kept incommunicado after her trial and her family didn't even know where she was being held.

It wasn't until 10 years later, in December 2016, that the government revealed Muradova died in Owadan-depe Prison, a remote maximum-security facility in the Karakum Desert.

Owadan-depe Prison is where Turkmen authorities hold political prisoners and those arrested on religious extremism charges.

Nothing Has Changed

In a landmark announcement in 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) held that the government in Ashgabat was responsible for Muradova's death.

The OHCHR said Muradova had been "arbitrarily detained" because of her journalistic and human rights activities.

It accused Turkmenistan's government of failing to conduct an effective investigation into the allegations of torture and her death in custody.

The OHCHR urged Ashgabat to launch a prompt and impartial investigation. It also ordered Ashgabat to provide Muradova's family with a full account of its investigation -- including her autopsy report, copies of trial transcripts, and court verdicts.

Nevertheless, there still has never been a probe by Turkmen authorities into what happened to Muradova while she was in their custody.

Meanwhile, little has changed regarding the Turkmen government's treatment of journalists and human rights activists.

Ashgabat continues to clamp down on its critics, stifle free speech, and severely restrict people's rights and freedoms.

Rachel Denber
Rachel Denber

Fifteen years on, "correspondents for RFE/RL and other [independent] publications have to work at a great risk for themselves and their families," says Rachel Denber, HRW's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

"We still see the government putting pressure on the journalists' relatives in an attempt to silence them or force them to abandon their work," Denber told RFE/RL.

Denber said HRW remains committed to seeking justice for Muradova.

"I would like to tell [Muradova's children] that we haven't forgotten their mother, and we haven't forgotten them," Denber said. "We will continue to fight to bring to justice those who were responsible for Muradova's death."

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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