He just opted in to his final year of a $18.6 million contract to stay with the New York Knicks for the 2018-19 season, but no amount of money can expunge the challenges 26-year-old Enes Kanter, who has been called a “terrorist” in his native Turkey, now faces.
He is wanted for arrest, has had his passport revoked, and says he endures numerous death threats every week because of his staunch but unwavering criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I don’t just get hate mail. I get three or four death threats every week. With death threats – you just never know,” Kanter told Fox News. “It’s pretty crazy. I used to take a screen shot of them, but after a while I was getting so many, I decided I wasn’t going to bother and waste my time anymore. It’s pretty disgusting.”
Kanter believes the threats are from pro-Erdogan supporters both in Turkey and the wider diaspora. He has alerted law enforcement and the Knicks’ security detail, and said he feels safe while he's in the U.S.
“But anywhere outside America would be very dangerous,” Kanter said.
Turkish prosecutors are reportedly seeking a four-year prison sentence for Kanter's “membership” in “an armed terrorist organization” – known as the Gulen or Hizmet Movement, or “FETO” by Turkish officials. The Turkish government accuses Gulen of orchestrating the July 2016 failed coup attempt against the Erdogan government.
But Kanter won’t back down. He has referred to Erdogan in such blunt terms as a “maniac,” and compared him to Adolf Hitler. He's also dismissed the charges against him, saying “That’s it? Only four years ... All the trash I’ve been talking?”
Erdogan, who has for years been a controversial figure both at home and internationally, was re-elected to a five-year term just last month. His election, and his forceful role in changing Turkey's government to a presidential system, has his critics fearing the country is headed to one-man rule.
Kanter, who has been in the U.S. since 2011 and has legal residency, is essentially stateless. He does not have a valid passport, and cannot travel with the full protection of the U.S. government until he qualifies for American citizenship in a few years.
The NBA player was detained in Bucharest, Romania in May 2017 while on a global tour for the Enes Kanter Foundation – which provides clothing and food to children in need – after Turkish officials suddenly revoked his passport. He deemed that a ploy to force him back into Turkey – and jail.
But the U.S Department of Homeland Security and the NBA worked hastily to have him transferred from Romania to London, where he was then able to fly to the U.S under special circumstances.
“People ask me now where I am from and I don’t know what I am supposed to say,” he said. “I was born in Switzerland and supposedly I am from Turkey. But I am no longer from Turkey. They canceled my passport and don’t want me.”
Kanter's family has also been caught up in the controversy.
“My family in Turkey can’t even come to America, they can’t even leave the country. It is pretty sad, just because of me they are going through all these tough times," he lamented. "They raided my family’s house a year ago, they took all their electronics and laptops and everything. They wanted to see if I am still in contact with them. If I send one single message to them, they will go to jail.”
Enes' father, Mehmet Kanter, an academic expelled from his job at a university in Istanbul because of his “terrorist” associations – was detained last year and charged with membership in the Gulen organization. He now faces more than 10 years in prison, with his trial slated to commence in the coming weeks.
“I can’t contact them, so I hear what is happening in the news,” Kanter said. “People have started to think I don’t love my country – I do. I wish I could go back and hang out with my family and my friends. The thing I miss most is my mom’s food. You can never beat my mom’s home cooking.”
But despite the hardships, Kanter said the struggle has been worth it.
“Random American people I see at Walmart, the airport, restaurants – they tell me to keep standing up for my country, to keep fighting for freedom and human rights. That means a lot to me,” he noted. "When I speak out here, it puts my family in danger. But I really want people to understand what is going on. It is not just my family who is in danger. I am just trying to be a voice for these people. When I speak, the Turkish government hates it. They don’t want me to talk, so they put my family in jail so they can silence me.”
Since the 2016 coup attempt, when rogue elements of the Turkish military attempted to overthrown the Erdogan government, the country’s leadership has cracked down against dissidents amid a protracted “state of emergency.” More than 100,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs, with an estimated 50,000 arrested on a variety of charges.
Subsequently, according to Human Rights Watch, “decrees adopted contained measures that undermine human rights safeguards and conflict with Turkey’s international human rights obligations.”
Turkish officials have repeatedly called on the U.S. to extradite Gulen, who remains in exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish embassy in Washington considers him the the leader of a "terrorist group that disguises itself as a charitable one."
Yet the U.S has thus far said there is insufficient evidence to prove Gulen’s involvement in the coup.
And Kanter has his own distinct memory of that night, almost two years ago now. He said he was actually with Gulen, whom he visits every several weeks, when reports of the coup starting coming in.
“All he did was sit on his chair, and was just praying for his country. Then Erdogan came out and blamed him and the Hizmet movement, I was shocked,” Kanter added. “It didn’t matter what side you were on; you don’t want people to die. It was a sad day.”