The towering Turkish centre is afraid to leave North America after Turkey requested his arrest and extradition on terror-related charges. Now, Kanter is asking lawmakers in Washington to protect him for speaking out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“There is a chance I could get killed out there,” Kanter told reporters last week, after he decided to skip a Knicks trip to London.
Kanter says he’s spoken to several members of Congress about his case, and he’s hoping to get help from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kanter, 26, has frequently criticized Turkey’s president in interviews and on Twitter. He referred to Erdogan as “the Hitler of our century” in 2017, and has openly questioned the Turkish president’s record on human rights, freedom and democracy.
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The Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, reported on Jan. 15 that Turkish prosecutors are seeking an Interpol “red notice,” which is an international request for arrest and extradition, for Kanter. Turkish prosecutors have accused Kanter of being a member of a terror organization, and of providing financial support to exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The Turkish government blames Gulen for a failed coup in Turkey in 2016. Gulen, who resides in the U.S., has denied the accusation.
Kanter openly supports Gulen, but he has denied the Turkish government’s allegations of terrorism.
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“Erdogan’s arms are long. He hunts down anyone who opposes him,” Kanter wrote in the Washington Post. “They claim I am a member of an ‘armed terrorist organization’ because I support Fethullah Gulen, a peaceful Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania.”
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Kanter says the Turkish government has not provided any evidence of his alleged terrorist activities.
“The only thing I terrorize is the rim,” he tweeted last week.
Turkey revoked Kanter’s passport in May 2017. Kanter, who was travelling at the time, was detained in Romania on his way home from a trip to Indonesia to run a charity basketball camp. He was later granted safe passage to London before returning to the U.S.
More than 50,000 people have been jailed in Turkey pending trial and 150,000 state workers including teachers, judges and soldiers have been suspended or dismissed in a crackdown on alleged supporters of Gulen since 2016.
Turkey charged Kanter’s father Mehmet Kanter, a professor, with membership in a terror group last June.
The Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported in December 2017 that a Turkish prosecutor had asked for Kanter to be jailed for up to four years for insulting Erdogan.
“I play in the NBA and I have a very big platform, so I’m using this platform to be the voice of all the innocent people who don’t have a voice,” Kanter told CNN’s S.E. Cupp on Sunday.
“There are thousands and thousands of stories out there waiting to be heard in Turkey,” he said.
“Erdogan is doing whatever he can, such as using institutions like the Interpol to execute his brutal international policy of persecution against his critics, including abductions and kidnappings of innocent Turkish people living abroad,” Celine Assaf Boustani, an international lawyer at the Human Rights Foundation, told the Associated Press.
“Interpol should reject Turkey’s request to issue a red notice arrest warrant for Kanter and uphold its constitution, which strictly forbids Interpol to undertake any politically motivated intervention or activity.”
Kanter holds a U.S. green card that allows him to live and work in the country on a permanent basis.
Kanter chose to skip the team trip to London out of fear that he might be captured or killed by Turkish spies.
“It’s pretty sad that all the stuff affects my career and basketball because I want to be out there and help my team win,” he told reporters ahead of the game, which he watched from the U.S.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week that he understood the decision.
“There are significant issues that he is dealing with, and I recognize that for the NBA, by virtue of the fact that we’re a global business, we have to pay a lot of attention to those issues as well,” Silver said last Thursday.
Former Toronto Raptor Hidayet (a.k.a. Hedo) Turkoglu, who is now a top adviser to Erdogan, accused Kanter of cancelling his trip due to passport and visa issues, “not because of fears for his life.”
“He is trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks,” Turkoglu wrote in a statement. “Such remarks constitute another example of the political smear campaign Kanter has been conducting against Turkey as well as his efforts to attribute importance to himself by covering up the contradictions in his sports career.”
Turkoglu does not explain what he means by “contradictions” in Kanter’s sports career.
Kanter was born to Turkish parents in Switzerland in 1992. The six-foot-11 centre was drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz in 2011, and played four seasons for the team before he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2014-15 season. The Thunder traded Kanter to the Knicks in 2017 as part of a package deal for Carmelo Anthony.
Kanter is the highest-paid player on the Knicks, and is in the final year of a contract that pays him US$18.6 million this year.
He represented Turkey several times at the international level from 2008-2011, but was left off the national team in 2015. He accused organizers at the time of excluding him because of his ties to Gulen.
“The reason I was not included in the squad is the values I believe in and my political stance,” he tweeted at the time, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press