Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Tuesday that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sentenced Ablikim Kalkun, a popular Uyghur singer and entertainer, to 18 years in prison for “performing songs deemed politically sensitive even though they had been pre-approved by censors.”
According to RFA, Kalkun was “briefly detained for reasons that remain unclear in April 2018,” and was secretly sentenced to prison in late 2019 on charges including “separatism, religious extremism, and discriminating against national education.”
RFA had to do some digging to learn exactly what happened to Kalkun:
A Uyghur employee at a district court in Urumqi told RFA he was unaware of Kalkun’s sentencing and referred further questions to the city’s higher-level courts. RFA also spoke with a Uyghur justice employee in Kalkun’s home village of Suntagh who said she had never heard of the entertainer.
When asked where Kalkun had been held in 2018, a Uyghur officer at the Nurluq District Police Station in Atush told RFA, “I have no information about that.”
However, both a Uyghur employee of the Urumqi Intermediate Court and a Uyghur police officer from Atush confirmed to RFA in separate phone calls that Kalkun had been convicted by authorities citing two of his songs—“Qerindashlar” and “Essalamu Eleykum”— as evidence of his “crimes.”
The police officer in Atush was cut off before he could think of anything other than those two songs that would merit throwing Kalkun in jail. As RFA pointed out, the songs had to be pre-approved by China’s all-powerful censorship boards before he could have performed them in public.
“Essalamu Eleykum” is a variant spelling for the standard Muslim greeting, which translates to “Peace be upon you,” but apparently the Urumqi Intermediate Court thought the song could “stir up religious sentiment” in an unacceptable manner. “Qerindashlar” means “kindred” or “brotherhood.”
Kalkun is the latest in a string of Uyghur entertainers and respected cultural figures to vanish into Chinese prisons and concentration camps. RFA’s sources thought Kalkun was targeted because he was popular, his music encouraged “Uyghur unity and solidarity,” and his children studied in Turkey, a country the Chinese government views as a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.
Elise Anderson of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a nonprofit organization advocating the rights of the Uyghurs and other Turkic people in Xinjiang, where the majority of Uyghurs live, said she was “feeling down” over reports of Kalkun’s prison sentence. She recalled meeting Kalkun and other Uyghur entertainers in 2014 and finding them charming and funny:
He was one of several famous artists (including Abdukerim Abliz!) to appear in the first round as a gag on the coaches for the show. Ablikim aka performed his "Essalamu Eleykum" to everyone's delight. Here's the video that eventually aired on XJTV-2: https://t.co/5yM3lE1NRO
— Elise Anderson (@AndersonEliseM) October 2, 2020
Anderson described Kalkun’s imprisonment as “another tragedy in the Uyghur homeland.”