WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CN) – Facing an international arrest warrant in his home country of Turkey, basketball star Enes Kanter has not relented on his major offensive against the country’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I have a platform, and I’m using this platform to be the voice of all those innocent people back in Turkey,” said Kanter, 26, who was traded to the New York Knicks in 2017. “They know my story because I’m playing in the NBA. My story compared to other people’s stories in Turkey, it’s nothing.”
Kanter sat for the interview last week inside the lounge of his White Plains apartment building. A night earlier, Kanter was in the same spot, watching his Knicks lose by a point to the Washington Wizards in London. Kanter had aimed to be at the game before learning that Turkey sought his extradition. He hoped limited travel between practice and games would be enough to avoid detention.
The front office had been supportive initially, he noted, but “later on, they just said, ‘It would be better if you don’t go because there are lots of problems, and they know about the Erdogan operations in foreign countries.’”
The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not reply to a request for comment seeking elaboration on its allegations against Kanter.
According to a researcher for Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights group, the Turkish government has detained, arrested and purged hundreds of thousands of people in a 46-country dragnet across four continents.
Erdogan has justified these extraordinary measures on his battle with religious leader Fethullah Gulen, an imam who for roughly the past 20 years has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Kanter said he was meeting with Gulen on July 15, 2016 — the night Turkey suffered the bloodiest coup attempt in its political history.
“It was a very sad moment because that night, over 250 people died,” Kanter recalled. “And I remember I saw Mr. Gulen with my own eyes that night. All he did was sit on his chair and pray for his country, and I remember the place was very quiet. Everybody was very sad.”
Recalling that Gulen called for an international investigation and denied responsibility for the incident, Kanter noted that it was Erdogan who infamously called the bloodshed “a gift from God.”
Kanter said his observation of the carnage fueled his opposition.
“I saw people, their head is blown up,” he said, referring to pictures from the coup that emerged. “I saw people get hit by tanks and they got shot. It was just more than shock. I was sick and sad. I talk about the Erdogan regime, and people think I don’t like my country. No, I love my country. I love my people.”
In the post-coup clampdown, Erdogan labeled Gulen’s movement an armed terrorist organization. The Associated Press estimated last year that the Turkish government detained more than 160,000 people for questioning and formally arrested 77,000 for alleged terrorism links, though the exiled journalist collective Turkey Purge places current estimates higher.
“If he can’t catch you, then he will catch your family,” Kanter said of Erdogan. “Then, he will catch your family members and put them in jail, try to silence you.”
Police raided Kanter’s home in Turkey two years ago and subsequently arrested his father, Mehmet. Headed to trial in March, Mehmet faces up to 10 years imprisonment.
“They took all the electronics away — phones away, laptops away, computers away — and they wanted to see if I’m still in contact with my family or not,” he said. “If they would have seen any single text message or missed calls from me, they would be all in jail.”
Kanter was playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 when his father publicly disowned him in a letter for embracing Gulen.
The basketball star famously signed his reply on social media “Enes (Kanter) Gulen.”
Today Kanter has a nuanced view of his family strife.
“Think about if they didn’t do it,” Kanter said. “Then my whole family would be in jail. My dad was a genetics professor. He got fired. My sister was in medical school. She finished medical school. Now, she can’t even find a job.”
Under Erdogan’s emergency decrees, more than 130,000 teachers, attorneys, military officers, law enforcement officials and judges had been purged from public service. Those suspected of ties to Gulen have been detained and rendered from such countries as Moldova, Kosovo and Gabon.
The international purge became personal to Kanter on May 20, 2017, during a visit to a children’s basketball camp that his charity ran in Indonesia.
Alerted to the threat by his manager at 2:30 a.m., Kanter said things may have gone differently had he not been staying in a hotel.
“Luckily, I didn’t stay [at the camp dormitory] because the beds were so small,” the 6-foot-11 center explained. “That’s why I picked the hotel.”
Some three hours later Kanter took an early morning flight to Singapore. He learned Turkey had canceled his passport when he was detained at a connection in Bucharest, Romania.
“I can’t go anywhere else besides America now,” said Kanter, who holds a green card and is applying for U.S. citizenship.
Kanter has shared his persecution story with multiple outlets, including last week The Washington Post. In this interview days later, he puzzled about the outrage that Erdogan has aired on behalf of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“First of all, what happened to him is of course, very sad, and I feel sorry for him and for his family,” Kanter said, referring to Khashoggi. “But it’s just very crazy to me.”
Shuttering dozens of news outlets, Erdogan’s government has been ranked the world’s top jailer of journalists by press watchdogs every year since the coup attempt.
His NBA schedule locked within U.S. borders — even Toronto Raptors games are a no-go — Kanter’s calendar now includes meetings with dozens of U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle. Republicans who made time for Kanter include Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New York Representative Lee Zeldin and Oklahoma Senator James Langford.
Kanter also has spoken to powerful New York Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ranking House Foreign Affairs Committee Member Representative Eliot Engel, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a rising star in the party.
“When I sit down and started talking about the issues in Turkey, they stopped me,” Kanter said. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We already know about those issues.'”
President Donald Trump and his top allies meanwhile have been cozying up to Erdogan to coordinate on the withdrawal from Syria.
Despite belt-tightening from the U.S. government shutdown, Senator Lindsey Graham traveled to Turkey on this diplomatic mission last week.
As the South Carolina Republican posed for a smiling photo with Erdogan inside an Ankara music hall, Kanter had a message. “I would just tell [Graham] about how Erdogan uses power to abuse human rights in Turkey and democracy and freedom,” Kanter said.
Graham’s spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment on whether the senator would take the meeting.
Multiple public figures have leapt meanwhile to Kanter’s defense since the Turkish government requested a red notice seeking his extradition.
While Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov wrote a letter of support on behalf of Human Rights First, asking Interpol to reject the request, the rapper Chuck D likened Kanter to athletes like Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick who became political icons.
Financier and fierce Kremlin critic Bill Browder has also said that Kanter’s ordeal reminded him of Russia’s abuse of the “red notice” system against him.
“It just meant so much to me because to see that support, not just from them, but non-Turks from all over the world, it just gives me so much hope,” Kanter said. “So much power.”
Kanter also called himself part of the global Turkish population who took heart in the U.S. prosecution of former Erdogan ally Reza Zarrab for a record-breaking money-laundering scheme to Iran.
“Seeing an American like Preet Bharara taking an action like that, it just made the whole country so happy,” Kanter said of the former Manhattan federal prosecutor.
Bharara became an overnight celebrity on Turkish Twitter as the case electrified those fighting corruption in the Erdogan administration.
Kanter, who wore a Bharara jersey and called him the “Justice Hunter,” said outside support sustains him given the incentives to stay silent.
“If you talk about these issues, then you’re not going to get a big contract, and you’re not going to get endorsement deals,” said Kanter, whose contract with the Knicks expires this year. “People are not gonna love you like they’re supposed to because you’re talking about these kinds of issues.”
Interpol declined to comment on Kanter’s case but appeared to defer to Turkey.
“If or when police in any of Interpol’s 194 member countries share information with the General Secretariat in Lyon in relation to any police investigations and individuals, this information remains under the ownership of that member country,” the international police organization said in an unsigned statement.