Kanter's assassination fears taken seriously by NBA, commissioner says
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver insisted he takes the issue of player safety "very seriously" following New York Knicks star Enes Kanter's decision to miss his team's game in London amid fears he would be killed for his political views.
Turkey-born Kanter was due to play for the Knicks against the Washington Wizards in the NBA's annual regular-season showcase at London's O2 Arena on Thursday.
But the 26-year-old refused to travel to England with his Knicks team-mates due to his belief he would be targeted following his controversial feud with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kanter is a close ally of US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is wanted in Turkey on suspicion of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016.
Kanter has long been a vocal critic of what he sees as a violent and dictatorial regime in Turkey. In December 2017, Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reported that prosecutors were seeking more than four years in prison for Kanter on charges of insulting Erdogan in a series of tweets he posted in 2016.
Speaking to i24NEWS on Wednesday, Kanter said that he decided to skip the January 17 match against Washington at London’s O2 arena for fears that he would be “hunted down” by the government.
Kanter claimed Erdogan might have him kidnapped or killed and, while the Knicks were en route to London, an Istanbul prosecutor applied for an Interpol "red notice" to be issued against the player.
“The Turkish government is very famous for hunting down people who speak out against the government, especially in Europe. There have been a lot of cases in many countries that [Erdogan] has been hunting down teachers, journalists and community leaders,” he said.
“When I talked to my teammates they said ‘don’t risk it.’”
Silver, speaking ahead of the Knicks game, made it clear he would do everything in his power to ensure Kanter's safety wasn't in doubt.
"I will say that there is nothing more important to be than the security of our players and we take very seriously the threat that he received even if it was just on social media," Silver told reporters in London.
"My stance is I think it is very unfortunate that Enes is not here. I absolutely understand why he elected not to come."
Kanter's Turkish passport was cancelled in 2017, which he said was because of his political beliefs.
He holds a US green card and says he will become an American citizen in 2021.
But the controversy over his clash with Erdogan has overshadowed the NBA's attempt to grow their global brand this week.
While his team-mates were preparing to face the Wizards, Kanter spoke to the BBC, adding fuel to the fire as he said he felt "trapped" in America.
Claiming he felt "hunted" and lived in fear of a "lone wolf attack" from supporters of Erdogan.
He also called on US President Donald Trump to be more vocal about human rights in Turkey.
Turkish authorities are believed to have arrested at least 77,000 people since the failed coup, with state employees including teachers, judges and soldiers probed in a crackdown on alleged Gulen supporters.
Silver emphasized that NBA chiefs never asked Kanter to stay away and insisted the league wouldn't duck the issue.
"Certainly there was no suggestion from the league that he was not welcome on this trip," Silver said.
"We live in a world where there are significant issues that he is dealing with. I recognize that because the NBA is global business we have to take notice of these issues.
"Again I support Enes as a player in this league."
-- Turkey’s years long crackdown --
Since a failed military coup in 2016, Turkey has rounded up tens of thousands of people accused of supporting exiled US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the attempted putsch.
Former Turkish NBA player Hedo Turkoglu, now a chief adviser to Erdogan, accused Kanter of leading a “smear campaign” against Turkey and claimed that the Knicks star was sitting out due to visa issues, not threats on his life.
“Kanter can't enter the UK not because of fears for life as he claims but due to passport and visa issues. This being the long-known truth, he is trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks,” Turkoglu said.
"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. ... It is obvious that this person's remarks are irrational and distort the truth."
Kanter responded by tweeting a picture of a travel document permitting him visa-free travel and calling Turkoglu a “delusional” mouthpiece for the Turkish government.
In June, Kanter told i24NEWS that he would continue speaking out against Erdogan and provide a voice for the muzzled opposition.
“Turkey is the number one country in the world putting journalists in jail,” Kanter told i24NEWS, referring to shutdown of over 156 media outlets and the mass arrests over 100,000 people -- which also targeted military personnel, teachers, public servants and police -- accused of opposing Erdogan.
Enez’s father Mehmet Kanter, a university professor, faced indictment charges from a Turkish court last week based on claims that he had been contacted by 127 individuals with links to exiled US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who was previously deemed a terrorist by Erdogan after allegedly masterminding his downfall.
Despite Turkish prosecutors seeking to imprison Mehmet for 15 years, Kanter told i24NEWS that he will not be silenced and will continue to speak out even more vociferously against the injustices and oppression Turkish citizens face under the current regime. In a video published last week on social media, Kanter dubbed Erdogan the “Hitler of our century.”
“I think it’s really important for me because I play for the NBA,” the professional basketball player said, reiterating that he will “fight for freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
“I never sent any death threats, or anything crazy, I never cursed at him,” he said referring to his condemnation of Erdogan’s government. “He [Erdogan] wanted to show the power that he had, that’s why he gave me four years in jail, just because I insulted him.”
“I love my country, I love my flag, the only thing I’m talking out against is the regime,” he said, positioning himself as the “voice for all citizens” who oppose the government.
“Right now my country’s going through a really tough time and all I can do is pray,” he explained.
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