US-Trained Uyghur Scientist Found Detained After His WeChat Went Silent

The reason Tursunjan Nurmamat is detained and under investigation is unclear.
2021-07-20
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US-Trained Uyghur Scientist Found Detained After His WeChat Went Silent Uyghur research scientist Tursunjan Nurmamat in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Abduweli Ayup

A Uyghur research scientist at a Chinese university in Shanghai who suddenly went silent in April after an active presence on social media has been confirmed detained, the latest of many intellectuals from Xinjiang to disappear from public life into internment camps or prisons.

Tursunjan Nurmamat, who had lived in the United States between 2009 and 2018 and earned doctorate from the University of Wyoming, has been in police custody for three months, according to sources at Tongji University, where he had worked since July 2018.

An official at Tongji University in Shanghai confirmed that Tursunjan is in custody and under police investigation.

“This is currently in the process of investigation,” he said. “We know basic details, but nothing else. The Public Security Bureau is not talking with us,” the official said.

When RFA asked for the name of the Uyghur instructor detained from the school, a second university staff member mentioned Tursunjan, who was born in 1985 in Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county in Kashgar in the far west of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Tursunjan, who did postdoctoral research in Texas and California, is the latest in a growing number of Uyghur intellectual, cultural, and religious thought leaders to be incarcerated in the XUAR in what experts say is a larger Chinese effort to erase Muslim and Uyghur culture and force the 12 million Uyghurs to assimilate.

The jailing of Uyghur cultural leaders, which has gotten increasingly heavy-handed since 2016, is part of a set of policies has been deemed by the U.S. and others as constituting genocide that also includes forced labor at factories and farms, forced birth control, and the detention of up to 1.8 million Uyghurs in a network of internment camps.

Abduweli Ayup, founder of Uyghur Hjelp, a Norway-based Uyghur advocacy and aid organization which maintains a list of detained Uyghur intellectuals, wrote on Twitter in June that Tursunjan had disappeared from Chinese social media two months earlier.

Abduweli told RFA he tried to investigate, but could not obtain much information on the academic, who he said focused on his studies in molecular and cellular life science in his work and avoided involvement in political activities while he was in the U.S.

Tursunjan, who also goes by the pen name Bilge, started a job at Tongji University in July 2018 and continued to post regularly online until he stopped doing so in early April, said Abduweli.

Among Tursunjan’s last posts to his WeChat account was a photo of his mother, wife, and daughter celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8.

During the first week of April, he also posted on WeChat that he was happy to have been transferred to a new job at Cell Research, a Chinese monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal covering cell biology.

But soon after Tursunjan announced that he had begun working at Cell Research, his name disappeared from the publication’s website.

“At that point we began to worry that Tursunjan had been detained,” Abduweli said.

“We spread the news on social media, and then, after looking into Tursunjan’s situation, we were able to obtain a bit of information about it. Ultimately, we are concerned about what has happened to Tursunjan,” said Abduweli.

Abduweli and several of Tursunjan’s friends in the U.S. wrote to the publishers of Cell Research and received a response that the journal was unable to provide personal information about its editors.

RFA sent an email to the journal on July 17 asking for information about Tursunjan but has not yet received a response.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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