While his New York Knicks built a halftime lead over the Washington Wizards in London on Thursday afternoon, center Enes Kanter was explaining to CNN why he hadn’t joined his team overseas, and why he fears for his life if he leaves the United States.
Turkey has publicly vowed to track down political dissidents overseas and bring them back to the country to stand trial.
“Erdogan has operations all over the world, and the Turkish government is very famous for hunting down people who talk about the government and Erdogan,” Kanter said on CNN in an interview that aired during the Knicks-Wizards game. “That’s why I was scared of his long arms; that my life would be in danger.”
Kanter is aligned with a Muslim cleric and conservative political figure, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt. His government has jailed thousands of Gulen supporters and fired tens of thousands of other from civil society jobs. The cleric, whom Kanter considers an adoptive father, lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania.
Turkey’s government considers the Gulenist movement a terrorist organization, and accused Kanter of funding the group. Kanter in a tweet Wednesday said the Turkish government “can NOT present any single piece of evidence of my wrongdoing” and called himself “a law-abiding resident.” Kanter has called Erdogan "the Hitler of our century” over his government’s consolidation of power, crackdown on civil liberties and treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish ethnic minority.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Kanter told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on Thursday. “I just tried to be the voice of all these innocent people.”
Over a seven-minute interview, Baldwin asked about Kanter’s relationship with his family (his father publicly renounced him over his affiliation with Gulen; Kanter insists his father had no choice if he wanted to protect the rest of the family), the time he spends with Gulen and what his teammates think of his political activism. While the Knicks went through the publicity associated with an international game, Kanter visited with Congressional leaders in Washington, published an opinion piece in The Washington Post, tweeted responses to the report of the arrest warrant, and made his case on CNN.
“My heart hurts when I talk about this issue,” he told Baldwin. “Because until the London game, I have not missed a single game. And when I talk to my team and the front office, they said you have to miss a game because we don’t want you go to London, because it might be a very big issue. And I even told them, I want to play with my team very bad [but] I don’t feel safe there.”
In London on Thursday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said league officials never suggested Kanter stay home, and offered support.
“I will say there’s nothing more important to me, as the commissioner of the league, [than] the safety and security of our players, and so we take very seriously the threats that he has received, [even if] it’s just people on social media,” Silver said, according to the Associated Press. “Again, I support Enes, a player in this league, and I support the platform that our players have to speak out on issues that are important to them.”
After the CNN interview, Kanter returned to watch the rest of the Knicks-Wizards game with ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap.
Kanter hasn’t seen his family since 2015. He said he forgot what his parents' voices sound like and what they look like.
“It’s killing my heart,” he said.
He sees Gulen every two to three weeks during the NBA season, he said. He was with Gulen the night of the 2016 coup and insists the cleric could not have orchestrated the plot.
“I was with Mr. Gulen in the coup night. The same room,” he said. “When Mr. Gulen’s assistant brought the news to us, everyone in the room with us was shocked.”
Baldwin asked Kanter if his political stance is worth the personal danger and the scorn from Erdogan supporters around the world; Kanter said in an interview with The Washington Post in April that he is fearful of going to Turkish restaurants over how he’ll be received.
“Everybody asks me are you crazy? Is it worth it? I play in the NBA and I have a platform so I’m using this platform for all these innocent people,” he said. “In the end, I’m a basketball player. I’m not a politician. I’m not a journalist. Some of the words I use, I’ve never used them before in my life. But I have to do this for all the innocent people and the journalists that are in jail.”
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