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New York Knicks center Enes Kanter is foregoing a team trip to London due to safety concerns. An outspoken critic of Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter fears retaliation from associates of Erdogan, and that he might be detained or even killed. Meanwhile, Turkish prosecutors are accusing the athlete of connections to terrorism. Kanter tells Amna Nawaz why he feels "like an American."
Since surviving a coup attempt in 2016 and consolidating his power, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on dissenting voices in his country, rounding up thousands of political opponents and jailing dozens of journalists.
He's been heavily criticized by human rights groups and by some world leaders.
But one of his most vocal critics today isn't a politician. He's a professional athlete.
And, as Amna Nawaz tells us, he says he's speaking out because he fears for his own life.
Enes Kanter is a Turkish citizen who's lived in the U.S. since 2009. He's an NBA player who's now in the eighth year in the league. He's now a center for the New York Knicks. And his strong criticism of President Erdogan, calling him a lunatic, a dictator and the Hitler of our century, placed him in the leader's crosshairs.
In 2017, he was briefly detained overseas when Turkey canceled his passport and issued a warrant for his arrest. Today, Kanter is not traveling with the rest of his team to London because he's scared Erdogan supporters may target him outside the U.S.
Enes Kanter joins me in our studio now.
Welcome to the "NewsHour."
Thank you. Appreciate it.
I want to start with a little bit of news.
It's being reported that an Istanbul prosecutor has filed what's called a red notice with Interpol.
That's basically seeking your extradition back to Turkey.
Have you gotten any notification of that?
Well, I just saw the news this morning. And they put the red notice while my team — my teammates were flying, and they were still in the air.
And the Turkish government assumed that I will be on the plane. And that's why they put a red notice under the — under my name on Interpol.
So, if were to go to London, as soon as I left the plane, they could arrest me there.
You're guessing that's what happened, though, right? You haven't gotten any official notification from the Turkish government?
Well, it was all over the Turkish news.
And I believe that it happened.
So, the Turkish government has basically accused you of being a member of what they say is an armed terrorist group. And that's based on your affiliation with Fethullah Gulen, who's a Turkish cleric.
He's here in the U.S. in self-exile. And Erdogan blames him for the 2016 coup attempt. So what exactly is your relationship with Gulen?
Well, I see him once every two, three weeks.
And then it's funny, because I was with Mr. Gulen on the coup night. I remember it was a Friday night. I was sitting in the same room with him. And then Mr. Gulen's assistant brought the news and said there's coup attempt happening in Turkey.
And then he was shocked and I was shocked at the same time. And then later on, Erdogan came out and say, oh, he blamed Mr. Gulen for the coup attempt. And I was like, I was in the same room with him. There is no way this is true, this is happening.
And then that's why I was trying to explain to the whole world I was with Mr. Gulen that night, and then nothing — and then that didn't happen.
But you meet with him every two or three weeks?
Why is that?
Well, I go — I cannot go back to my country.
So, every time I go there, listen, eat Turkish food, hang out with my Turkish people. It's like a family there for me.
It's a family outside of Turkey for you?
Do you know that Mr. Gulen had anything to do with the 2016 coup attempt?
He has nothing to do with it, because I was with him that night.
And if you want to understand who did the coup attempt, you have to look at the benefits of coup attempt. And after the coup attempt, there was around 80,000 people in the jail, and 17 of them are women, and around 700 babies are in a jail right now with their families.
Let me ask you about your decision not to travel with your team to London.
What specifically are you worried could happen if you went to London or traveled anywhere outside the U.S. right now?
Well, I was getting death threats almost once or twice a week. And after I made that London comment…
Where are you getting those threats?
Mostly on social media
And after I made that London comment, I was getting hundreds and hundreds every day.
So I didn't want to go to some foreign country that — especially in Europe, where Erdogan's long arms are everywhere. And Turkish governments are very famous for hunting down people, especially in Europe.
And he kidnapped around 100 people, community leaders, teachers, journalists. So that's why I didn't want to go there and risk my life.
You are worried that you would be targeted by one of his supporters, either kidnapped or detained, if you are to leave the U.S.?
If you believe his reach is that wide, how do you know you're safe here in the U.S.?
Well, I know there's laws in the U.S. And I believe, U.S., that nothing can happen.
And in the U.S. and then — but outside of U.S., I don't really feel safe anywhere else.
You were on Capitol Hill meeting with a bunch of senators and other members of Congress. What were those meetings about?
It was amazing. We talk about the Turkey issues. We talk about that Erdogan is abusing the human rights in Turkey. We talk about the people in prison right now. We talk about the women are in prison waiting for help.
And then they will keep asking me, why are you doing this? I said, I have a big — I have — I play in the NBA and I have a platform. I'm using my platform to be — try to be the voice of all these innocent people in Turkey who don't have a voice.
Did you request those meetings with them? Or did they ask for them?
And what is it you're asking for from those members?
Well, anything, anything that they can help, because I'm trying to use my voice, the voice of all those innocent people, and trying to just do something, create awareness.
You have been meeting with members of Congress here. Have you been in touch with anyone from the White House or the administration?
I have not, but I really want to. And I will — I hope I will get to talk to Trump one day and talk about the issues in Turkey. I really want to.
What would you hope to say to him?
Well, I will say that — all the abuses Erdogan is doing, all the human rights he's violating in Turkey.
I just want to say, just do something, not for me, for all those innocent people, thousands and thousands people who are in Turkey, because they are really waiting for help.
Tell me about your family. They're still back in Turkey?
: Well, my family, yes, they're still back in Turkey, my mom, my dad and my sister.
And your father, I understand, is currently being prosecuted on charges of being a member of a terrorist group?
He actually has a trial in mid-March. He is facing 15 years in jail.
And what is your father's background? What's the basis of those charges?
Well, he's just my dad. That's…
Based only on his relationship to you, you believe those judges have been brought?
Have you spoken with your family recently?
I haven't seen my family for three years. Last time I talked to them, long time ago.
And why is that?
Because when they come to — raided my house in 2017, they took every electronics away, phones away, computers away and laptops away.
They wanted to see if I'm still in contact with my family or not. And if they were to see any text message, they would all be in jail. So I'm not going to risk my family, my mom, my dad, and see one text, and they will be all in jail. I'm just — it would better be just not communicate with them.
So, the Turkish government canceled your passport.
You have sort of an emergency travel document issued by the U.S. government. But you are not a citizen here. Where is home for you? Do you want to stay here in the U.S.? Do you want to go back to Turkey one day?
It's funny, because a lot of people call me homeless.
I don't have a — the guy without a country. But you know what? I feel like an American. I really feel like an American, because all the support I'm getting from Americans, from my teammate, from my fans.
So — and I'm becoming an American citizen in 2021. And I cannot wait.
You're in the process right now?
Yes, I got two years left.
Enes Kanter, thank you very much for being here.
Thank you, guys, for allowing me to talk. Appreciate it.
Amna spoke with Enes Kanter yesterday.
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