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A Critic Of Turkey, The Knicks' Enes Kanter Speaks Out About His Fears For His Life

Jan 12, 2019
Originally published on January 13, 2019 9:30 am

Last time the New York Knicks played the Washington Wizards, Enes Kanter scored 18 points.

For their next game, he won't be there to score any.

Kanter recently announced he won't be joining the Knicks on Jan. 17 when they'll play the Wizards in London as part of the NBA's Global Games series because he fears for his safety.

Kanter is from Turkey and has been an avid critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He says if he travels to London, he fears agents of the Turkish government might kill him.

"The Turkish government is very famous for hunting down those who oppose Erdogan ... I just didn't really want to risk my life by going to Europe where Erdogan's long arms are everywhere," he said in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon.

Kanter said that in the past few days, he has gotten "hundreds of death threats." He said if he did travel to London, he would only be able to go to practice, the game and his hotel, with security around him 24/7.

In 2017, Kanter was detained in Romania after Turkey revoked his passport, but was quickly released. Turkish prosecutors wanted him extradited to Turkey on charges brought after he tweeted statements critical of Erdogan in 2016. Prosecutors also accused him of being part of a terror group due to his support for the Gulen movement, a social movement led by cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan has blamed for a failed coup against him in 2016. Turkey has sought Gulen's extradition from the U.S., where he now lives.

Kanter said his father was also indicted in Turkey last year and accused of being part of a terrorist organization. He was in jail for seven days before being released after mounting pressure from Kanter and his supporters in the U.S. Kanter said he currently does not speak to his family for fear they will be arrested.

Former Turkish NBA player Hedo Turkoglu, a senior advisor to Erdogan who Kanter said he was once friends with, tweeted that the Knicks center can no longer travel to many countries due to visa issues. He called Kanter's remarks part of a "political smear campaign Kanter has been conducting against Turkey."

"He is trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks," Turkoglu said in a tweet.

However, Kanter responded by tweeting an alleged travel document to show he can travel to London if he wants.

"I love my country and I hope when all of the things are done, I want to go back to my country to see my family. But about Erdogan, he is an authoritarian leader who jails journalists and opposition," Kanter said.

Since the failed coup, authorities have arrested and detained thousands of individuals on charges of supporting the coup. Human Rights Watch has described the government's crackdown as "symptomatic of the government's increasing authoritarianism."

"I'm an NBA player and I have a big platform so I'm trying to use this platform to be the voice of all the innocent people who don't have a voice ... my family is still back in there and they are getting lots of threats too but I have to do this for all those innocent people," Kanter said.

Sophia Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Lindsey Feingold is the NPR Digital Content intern.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Next week, the NBA is putting on its big London game. The New York Knicks take on the Washington Wizards. But Enes Kanter of the Knicks won't be there. Mr. Kanter is Turkish and an outspoken critic of Turkish President Erdogan. He was playing basketball for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017 when he was detained at a Romanian airport when Turkey revoked his passport. Enes Kanter joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ENES KANTER: Thank you, guys, for inviting me.

SIMON: And why did you decide not to go to London?

KANTER: I really didn't feel safe because the Turkish government is very famous for hunting down those who oppose Erdogan. So, I mean, I just didn't want to really risk my life by going to Europe. But, you know, I talked to my team. I told them all, like, how many times I want to come because I want to be with you guys there, and I want to get a win with you guys. And then, later on, they came back with the news and said, you know what? I think the best decision is if you don't come. Let's just not risk it for one game.

SIMON: Do you feel safe in New York and elsewhere in the U.S.?

KANTER: I have been getting last two, three days hundreds death threats, but I think I feel safe in America. But anywhere else in the world, I wouldn't really feel safe.

SIMON: Did you say you've gotten hundreds of death threats?

KANTER: Yes, I have been getting them since 2016. But, especially last two, three days, I have been getting lots of death threats.

SIMON: And we'll note that your father, Mehmet Kanter...

KANTER: Yes.

SIMON: ...Has been indicted in Turkey. He's accused of belonging to a terrorist organization. He is a follower of a cleric, who is in the United States and accused of plotting a coup against the Erdogan government. Does your father say he's innocent?

KANTER: Well, I'll tell you this first. I have no contact with my family right now, and I just don't want them to get in trouble. And if they would see any little text - say, hi, Mom. How you guys doing? Hi, Dad. And they will be all in jail. They actually took my dad in jail for seven days. And we put so much pressure from here in America to Turkey, and they had to let him go.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, a former NBA star, also from Turkey, Hedo Turkoglu, is now chief and adviser to President Erdogan. And he's been critical of you.

KANTER: Yes.

SIMON: Do you have anything to say about that?

KANTER: I was really good friends with him. I actually play in same team 2011. We were teammates in the Turkish national team. And then, after that, I think till 2013, '14, we played against each other because he was playing the NBA. And then, after that, he retired. And then, he started working with the Turkish government. And it's just very sad because he's actually a very good guy. But he picked a side, and he's in a tough situation.

SIMON: I have to ask, Mr. Kanter, have you received any pressure or advice from someone - I don't know - a sports agent, commercial agent, who says to you don't talk about politics? You're not going to be able to sell basketball shoes in Turkey. This makes you controversial. Just be quiet about what your feelings are.

KANTER: I understand. When you talk about this kind of issues, you are not going to get big contracts. But you know what? I look at it - in the end, it's worth it because I'm an NBA player, and I have a big platform. So I'm trying to use this platform to be voice of all those innocent people who don't have a voice. And people know my story because I play in the NBA. But there are thousands and thousands stories out there waiting to be heard way worse than mine. So I was like, you know what? I understand, you know? It's tough. My family's still back in there, and they're getting lots of threats, too. But I have to do this for all those innocent people.

SIMON: Enes Kanter of the New York Knicks, thanks very much. Good luck to you both on the court and off, sir.

KANTER: Thank you, guys, appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.