(New York, NY) – The secret sentencing of celebrated Uyghur singer Rashida Dawut to 15 years in prison for “separatism” is one more iteration of the Chinese government’s disturbing and reprehensible attempt to eradicate the cultural expression of Uyghurs and other minority groups, PEN America said today.

Sentenced in a secret trial in late 2019 in northwest’s China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Rashida Dawut’s status was only reported this week by Radio Free Asia. It is common for information about these secret trials to emerge only months later, if at all. 

“Though we don’t know the precise details of why Rashida Dawut was sentenced to prison––nor why she was on trial in the first place––the reality is grossly apparent: Rashida has become one more victim in Chinese authorities’ efforts to systematically silence prominent Uyghur voices,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “This 15-year sentence reveals the extent of the Chinese government’s fear of Uyghur artistic and cultural expression. We emphatically call for Chinese authorities to release Rashida and drop all charges against her and any other artists targeted for merely expressing their cultural identity.”

Dawut, a long-time member of the Xinjiang Muqam Troupe, a musical group in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, produced many popular solo folk albums in the 1990s. Sources have told Radio Free Asia that Dawut, who has family in the U.S., was previously held in one of Xinjiang’s infamous internment camps sometime between 2018 and 2019.

In recent years, China has forced the internment of millions of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in vast “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province. In the camps, they are forced to learn “patriotic education” and are subject to widespread human rights abuse. Additionally, international observers and human rights groups have documented the widespread persecution of Uyghur intellectuals, writers, and creatives. PEN America has previously labeled the current situation in Xinjiang “one of the greatest human rights catastrophes occurring today, with massive implications for the right to free expression.”

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, contact ARC here.