Uyghur educator serving 7-year sentence for instructing students in mother tongue

Adil Tursun was previously honored by the Chinese government as an outstanding teacher.
By Shohret Hoshur
Students respond to questions from a teacher in a classroom at a bilingual middle school for ethnic Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese students in Hotan, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, in a file photo.

A Uyghur educator has been serving a seven-year sentence in a prison in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region for violating Chinese policy and instructing his students in the Uyghur language, a former student and a police officer confirmed to RFA this month, more than six years after his detention.

Adil Tursun, a chemistry teacher and faculty director at Kashgar Kona Sheher (in Chinese, Shufu) County No. 1 High School was arrested in 2016 and sentenced in 2018 to seven years in Xinshou Prison in Shanghai after already having served two years of detention, said Abduweli Ayup, a former student who is now a Uyghur activist and linguist based in Norway.

Abduweili, who also documents missing and imprisoned Uyghurs in Xinjiang, said he found out about Adil’s imprisonment on a leaked Chinese government list of some 10,000 “suspected terrorists” published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April 2021. More than 7,600 of the people included on the document were ethnic Uyghurs, while the rest were mostly Kazakh and Kyrgyz, fellow Turkic Muslims.

Though Adil, now in his early 50s, previously had been recognized as one of the “nation’s outstanding teachers” by the Chinese government, he was arrested by authorities for the “crime” of speaking in the Uyghur language to his students when they did not his instruction in Chinese, Abduweli said.

“Adil Tursun was a very professional and responsible teacher,” Abduweli said.

“He was a very skilled and famous teacher. He was a member of textbook writing groups,” he added.

Adil, who was from Bulaqsu village in Kona Sheher’s Toqquzaq township and graduated from Hotan Pedagogical College, did not hide his dissatisfaction with the Chinese government policy of abolishing the Uyghur language in schools in order to implement what they call a “bilingual education” policy.

In the early 2000s, Xinjiang education officials introduced the bilingual education policy, requiring Mandarin to be used as the primary language of instruction in schools, with the Uyghur language and literature taught as subjects. The policy was slowly implemented and mainly in urban ethnic minority schools that employed educators who were fluent in Mandarin.

Authorities said the measure would improve standard Mandarin language skills among ethnic minority students so they would be more competitive in the workplace, while Uyghurs saw it as forced cultural assimilation aimed at diluting their Turkic heritage.

Two decades after the policy took effect, not only instruction in the Uyghur language but also the use of standard Uyghur-language textbooks have been banned in nearly all schools, including kindergartens and in rural schoolhouses, though some students still cannot understand instruction or materials in Mandarin.

When RFA called Kona Sheher county police to find out about Adil’s sentence, they declined to answer questions but did not deny that the teacher had been jailed.

A police officer in Kashgar prefecture, where the county is located, however, said Adil had been arrested because of “a previous mistake,” and that the mistake was “speaking in the Uyghur language to his students.”

The officer also said that Adil had been arrested two years before he was sentenced in 2018, but he did not provide additional information.

“After his mistake was investigated, he was arrested. It was a previous mistake of his — to speak in Uyghur to his students while bilingual education was being implemented,” said the officer.

Local police had detained Adil once before in 2015 after his transgression of teaching chemistry lessons in the Uyghur language first came to the attention of Chinese education authorities in Kona Sheher county, according to Abduweli. Police investigated him for the same reason in 2016, but this time, they arrested him.

“He was handed over to the national security branch of the police department and was sentenced to prison two years after his arrest,” the officer said.

RFA previously reported on large-scale arrests of Uyghurs in Kona Sheher county that began prior to 2017, with many people being detained and sentenced to prison, amid a wider crackdown on the minority group in Xinjiang.

Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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