The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Capitol Hill, officials line up to back Enes Kanter, NBA player and political dissident

Enes Kanter with Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) (Twitter)

Enes Kanter’s jersey from his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder hangs in the office of Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma. He talks about the NBA with Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat known throughout the Senate as a basketball devotee. He has discussed Interpol red notices with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and joked about Boston sports fans with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Then last week, Kanter, a center for the Boston Celtics, stood shoulder to shoulder with Wyden and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in the Capitol as they introduced human rights legislation aimed at Turkey.

The next day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of a NATO ally who has orchestrated a crackdown on civil society, jailed journalists and silenced political dissent in his home country, joined President Trump at the White House.

Trump said the two were “very good friends.” Kanter, meanwhile, has emerged as one of Erdogan’s loudest critics.

“What Sen. Wyden and I are trying to do,” Markey said at the news conference introducing the bill, “is, on the one hand, make sure everyone in Turkey at the highest levels understands that we’re here to say, ‘Just don’t in any way try to harm Enes, and don’t harm anyone in your own country, as well.’”

Afterward, Kanter made the rounds on Capitol Hill, visiting nearly a dozen lawmakers from both parties, strolling hallways with which he has become familiar in a dark suit and designer sneakers.

“You guys know my story because I play in the NBA,” Kanter said at the news conference. “But there are thousands and thousands of stories out there that are way worse than mine. That’s why I’m trying to use my platform to be the voice of all those innocent people who don’t have one.”

Since emerging as one of Turkey’s leading political dissidents after a failed coup to oust Erdogan in 2016, Kanter, 27, has cultivated almost his own caucus among U.S. lawmakers, urging them to support policies to undercut Erdogan’s government and support human rights causes in Turkey. He calls Erdogan “the Hitler of our century.”

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And congressional leaders have lined up to lend support to his message.

“I’m going to have Enes’s back,” Markey said in an interview. “I’m going to be standing with him to protect his rights. And I think that’s something that we’re going to be able to organize, Ron Wyden and I, on a bipartisan basis for him.”

Kanter is aligned with Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric and former Erdogan ally living in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Erdogan’s government accuses Gulen — the leader of a secret Islamist movement with millions of followers — of orchestrating the failed coup (Gulen has denied any involvement) and has jailed thousands of Turks with Gulen ties and purged thousands of others from civil society jobs.

Turkey’s government considers the Gulenist movement a terrorist organization and accused Kanter of funding the group. In January, Turkey issued a “red notice” through Interpol to ask foreign law enforcement agencies to detain Kanter and remand him to Turkish authorities.

Kanter has used that attention and the spotlight of his NBA career to crusade for a more democratic Turkey, befriending and recruiting to the cause American lawmakers from each city he has played in during his nine-year NBA career. Few other prominent Turks have taken a stand against Erdogan in Washington.

Kanter was playing for the Thunder in 2017 when Turkish voters narrowly approved constitutional changes that granted Erdogan sweeping executive powers. Soon after, Kanter began to speak out against the changes, including while he was abroad running children’s basketball camps.

But on his way back to the U.S., his Turkish passport was canceled during a layover in Romania. Panicked that he was about to be detained by Turkish officials, he called Lankford’s office.

“They’re going to send me to Turkey,” Kanter said, Lankford recalled in an interview. “If they do that, I will go to prison immediately, and I will not get out.”

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Lankford called the State Department and got Kanter back on a plane to the United States. When he returned to Oklahoma, he met with Lankford to say thank you and explain what happened. The two quickly became friends, and each time Kanter joined a new team since then, he began building relationships with elected officials.

Playing with the Knicks from 2017 to the middle of the 2018-19 season, he met with most of the New York City congressional delegation, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D). In Portland for the back half of the 2018-19 season, he and Wyden became friendly, sometimes getting dinner together after Trail Blazers postseason games.

When Kanter signed with the Celtics in July, Wyden called Markey and set up a meeting for the three of them, where they began discussing the Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act, the bill that was introduced last week.

Kanter visited the Massachusetts state legislature and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) over the summer. Kennedy, who knew Kanter before he joined the Celtics, calls him a “prolific texter."

During Kanter’s trip to Washington last week, he delivered the opening remarks at a congressional briefing on legislation to grant special immigrant visas to Syrian Kurds displaced by Erdogan’s recent ground campaign in the region against the Islamic State.

“He’s a friendly guy, and he’s not shy about reaching out,” Kennedy said. “He’s not shy about bringing people in.”

“Obviously, Erdogan is a terrible, autocratic violator of human rights,” Markey said. “Enes Kanter has become the public face of explaining that to the American people.”

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Kanter’s platform as an NBA player helps him secure meetings on the Hill, but what lawmakers say makes Kanter so persuasive is his measured approach. Public figures in the midst of traumatic or intense personal situations aren’t always their own best advocates, several lawmakers said, held back by emotions or impatience.

Not so with Kanter, who lawmakers say tells his story gently and with a smile.

Kanter hasn’t seen his family in five years, and his father publicly disowned him in a handwritten letter to Erdogan and Turkish people.

Even so, his father was fired from his job as a genetics professor at a Turkish university during Erdogan’s purge of state employees. He since has been arrested on charges of affiliating with a terrorist group and awaits trial in 2020. His sister, a medical student, can’t find work.

“Even when someone has a good cause and a personal story to tell, they get into it so intensely that you almost want to back away from them for a moment,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said. “But he’s so calm and so reflective, he draws you in and you want to listen.”

“His approach to the conflict in Turkey is a humble one,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) said. “He’s a humble spokesman, one that I think can get his message across better than a politician.”

That story attracts an audience of lawmakers. Playing for the Knicks in 2018, Kanter did not travel with the team to London over fears that he could be arrested or assassinated outside the U.S.

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The Knicks asked Kanter to lay low while the team was away, said a person close to Kanter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss political strategy. Instead, Kanter booked a flight to Washington and set up meetings with legislators the next morning.

Kanter had a half-dozen meetings lined up when his flight lifted off from New York, the strategist said. When the plane landed, he had 10 more meeting requests from lawmakers.

Those relationships have produced real results, elected officials say. Wyden and Markey said they drafted their bill with Kanter in mind. During the 2019 playoffs, Wyden wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask Canadian law enforcement to protect Kanter if his team played in Toronto. Markey said his office will make similar overtures to Canadian security officials.

More than that, legislators say when questions about Turkish-American relations arise now, they know whom to call for input.

“Enes is so successful in Washington and is such a good teammate in the fight for human rights,” Markey said, “because you don’t have to wonder if he’s willing to take a charge. He knew the risks for him and his family, but he stepped up to speak out. … And on a bipartisan basis, people respond to that kind of strength and commitment to human rights.”

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