(New York, NY) — Syrian musician Omar Souleyman was arrested in Turkey Wednesday on terrorism charges relating to his alleged affiliation to the Kurdish Workers Party. PEN America today warned that such charges are often pretextual, and called on the Turkish government to immediately substantiate their claims or drop charges against Souleyman.

“We are deeply concerned to hear that Omar Souleyman was arrested and are watching closely to see what the government does next. While we don’t yet know the specifics of Souleyman’s situation or the charges against him, we do know that the charge of ‘membership in a terrorist group’ is commonly levied against dissidents and critics in Turkey—including artists, writers, and others—as a way of silencing those who use their platforms to criticize the government or to speak independently. Given this, we believe these charges must not be taken at face value. We call on the Turkish government to release Souleyman and to explain the charges against him,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America.

Souleyman was taken into custody after Turkish officials issued a search warrant and searched his home, located in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa. Souleyman’s son denied the charges against his father, saying that Souleyman is not affiliated with the PKK and a “malicious report” had been filed against him. The PKK is a Kurdish militant group recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. The group has been in conflict with Turkey for decades. In recent years, tens of thousands of people in Turkey have been jailed following accusations of “membership of a terrorist organization,” the charge facing Souleyman. Recently, the repression has become more severe, and the mere mention of the word “Kurdistan” in a song is now enough to open a judicial inquiry—as evidenced by the case of Veysi Ermis, a Turkish singer of Kurdish origins, who was sentenced to one year and six months in prison on November 11 for saying “Kurdistan” in one of his songs.

A singer, songwriter, and DJ, Souleyman is an Arab-Syrian from a majority-Kurdish province in Syria called Hasekah, where he gained fame as a wedding performer before leaving after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. He went on to gain international fame for his love songs, and one of his tracks, Warni Warni, released in 2013, has nearly 95 million views on YouTube. He performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in December 2013 and at the South by Southwest festival in Austin later that year.

In the wake of a failed military coup in 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has imposed severe limits on freedom of expression in Turkey as part of an aggressive crackdown on dissent and supposed enemies of the state. In 2020, PEN America counted 25 instances of imprisoned or detained writers and intellectuals in Turkey—the third-highest of any country on the 2020 Freedom to Write Index, behind only China and Saudi Arabia. In June, PEN America released a report titled Cracking Down on Creative Voices: Turkey’s Silencing of Writers, Intellectuals, and Artists Five Years After the Failed Coup, which outlined the legal mechanisms that the Turkish government has used to silence writers, activists, artists, academics, and creative professionals over the past five years, including a sweeping anti-terrorism law passed in 2018 and used to pave the way for the further criminalization of speech.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, please contact ARC.