MARY, Turkmenistan -- Teachers in Turkmenistan are being accused of demanding free lunches, money, and favors from students ahead of crucial graduation exams, leaving university hopefuls fearful they might not make the grade if they refuse.
Teachers at multiple high schools in the southern city of Mary have threatened senior students with low grades "that would ruin their school diplomas" if they don't comply, one parent told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on condition of anonymity.
Other parents echoed the claims of what they called "extortion," adding that some teachers were delegating their own tasks to senior students by making them check homework.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, some Mary teachers confirmed the allegations to RFE/RL. City education officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The students were allegedly told that any money they provided would be used for school renovations and to pay for teachers' lunches during the monthlong exam season.
"The students were given an option to pay for teachers' lunches or to bring cooked food for them during the graduation exams," one Mary resident with two school-age children said.
"Parents agreed, because they fear that if their children got a lower grade, it would effectively prevent them from being accepted to university," the man said. "Obviously, not all teachers are involved in these wrongdoings. But quite a lot of them are doing this."
RFE/RL sources say similar incidents have taken place in many other towns across the tightly controlled Central Asian country, which is notorious for corruption and bribery.
Some Mary teachers, meanwhile, accused "wealthy parents" of offering bribes to teachers in return for high exam grades.
Several teachers who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity say that affluent families often invite teachers to their homes for dinner and offer pricey gifts or cash in $50 or $100 banknotes. The teachers say the attempts to influence them are often made in front of the students.
The allegations come a year after many schools in Turkmenistan abruptly stopped the widespread practice of bribe-taking and illicit money collection after independent media, including RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, locally known as Azatlyk, exposed the practice.
"After the reports by Azatlyk, representatives of the Education Ministry and prosecutors began visiting schools in Ashgabat to check [the claims]," an Ashgabat resident said last year.
Turkmen authorities, who generally refrain from speaking to nonstate media, have made no public comments on the situation.
Schools across Turkmenistan have long faced allegations of illegally demanding that parents pay for school refurbishments, New Year's decorations and parties, and portraits of and books by the country's president.
By law, all public schools and their services must be funded from the state budget.
RFE/RL has previously reported about high schoolers in Turkmenistan who didn't want to go to school because they feared the teachers would "punish" them with low grades because their parents couldn't afford to pay bribes or favors.
State entities in Turkmenistan are often said to engage in bribery and extortion, including direct cash payments, donations, and mandatory subscriptions to state publications.
Public-sector workers have frequently complained that their paychecks are significantly reduced by various deductions, including payments to state-backed charities or office upgrades.
Turkmenistan has also come under criticism from rights watchdogs for requiring that workers volunteer their time to take part in mass street cleanings, parades, and government-organized events.
In February, two local state employees in the western Balkan Province, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials demanded that they donate half of their $430 monthly salaries to the charity fund run by former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
The vast majority of Turkmenistan's citizens live in poverty despite the country's abundant resources of natural gas. According to RFE/RL sources in the country, some people say that the money demanded by their children's schools or their own employers forces them to borrow money or cut back on food and essentials in order to get by. However, they say they opt not to lodge official complaints because the government in Ashgabat doesn't tolerate criticism.