Turkish prosecutors are seeking a prison term of at least four years for Knicks center Enes Kanter on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Anadolu Agency, a Turkish state-run news outlet.
Kanter, who was born in Switzerland and grew up in Turkey, has been an outspoken opponent of Erdogan’s government. As one of the country’s most famous athletes, his political clashes with the country have been highly publicized. Kanter doesn’t hold back on Twitter (as NBA fans know), and his strident social media comments have heightened tensions between him and the Turkish government.
In May and June of 2016, Kanter posted a series of tweets criticizing the Erdogan regime. Kanter is a passionate supporter of Erdogan’s opponent, Fethullah Gülen, the cleric who is rumored to be behind the failed military coup of Erdogan in 2016 (Gülen, living in exile in Pennsylvania, denies involvement).
Later that summer, his father, Mehmet, told a pro-government newspaper that Enes had been disowned by his family for political reasons, claiming his son had been hypnotized by the Gülenist Terror Organization and apologized “to the Turkish people and the president for having such a son.”
On May 20, 2017, while traveling internationally for his foundation, Enes was detained at an airport in Bucharest, Romania, after his passport was “canceled” by Turkish authorities.
Kanter posted a video during his detainment (which occurred on his 25th birthday), saying: “The reason behind it is just, of course, my political views. And the guy who did it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. … He’s attacked people in Washington. He’s a bad, bad man. He is a dictator, and he’s the Hitler of our century” (per ESPN).
I'm being held at Romanian airport by Police!! pic.twitter.com/uYZMBqKx54
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) May 20, 2017
Erdogan has reportedly jailed more than 40,000 for failed coups, shut down over 1500 civil groups and more than 150 news outlets while also arresting 120 journalists, via Amnesty International.
In that case, Kanter, then a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, received assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, Thunder and personal lawyers, the NBA and the NBAPA, and two Oklahoma lawmakers, Sen. Jim Inhofe and Sen. James Lankford, who made calls on his behalf. He was eventually able to return to the U.S. on a green card.
“It was of course scary,” Kanter said of the incident. “It was scary because there was a chance they might send me back to Turkey. And if they send me back to Turkey, probably you guys wouldn’t hear a word from me the second day. It would have definitely gotten really ugly.”
A couple days after the episode, Kanter penned an article for The Players Tribune highlighting the issues in Turkey, and told CBS that he believed Erdogan “wants to be a one-man show… The victims are the innocent people. That’s why he was trying to blame them because they were speaking the truth.” Per CBS This Morning:
The week prior to his father’s detainment, the Turkish government had issued a warrant for Kanter’s arrest, citing his accused “membership of an armed terrorist organization,” and “praise for a terror organization,” via social media. The warrant also refers to Kanter’s alleged use of an encrypted messaging app, Bylock, which Turkish authorities claim to be specifically associated with Gülen supporters.
Kanter, as usual, hit back on Twitter, sharing a screenshot of the article, adding: “You cannot catch me. Hahaha. Don’t waste your energy. I am already going to come to (Turkey) to spit on all of your ugly, hate-filled faces.”
Kanter has also criticized Erdogan’s regime following a deadly 2016 bombing in Ankara, and claimed to receive death threats after supporting the failed coup to overthrow Erdogan. In June 2015, Kanter blamed politics for his omission from Turkey’s national team, though the national team disputed his accusation.
Most recently, in November, Kanter posted a picture of his Turkish passport while flying to Toronto, tagging Erdogan with the hashtag “Dictator Erdogan”:
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) November 16, 2017
As for how this could play out, Kanter could be tried in absentia, though it’s unclear if and when a trial would eventually commence, as Turkish officials lack the authority to arrest him in North America. In theory, Turkey could petition to extradite Kanter, but it would be a hard case to make, considering extradition laws don’t apply to cases involving “political character” or “opinions.” Plus, the process would take months, possibly years, and his attorneys could prolong that timeline by offering defenses.
For the time being, his green card renders him free to remain in the U.S. indefinitely, and he has indicated a desire to become a citizen: “I am country-less. I am open to adoption definitely. I am going to try to become an American citizen,” Enes remarked.
Kanter is averaging 13.2 points and a career-high 9.8 rebounds in 27 games for the Knicks (16-14) this season, and has been widely praised for his loyalty, passion, and toughness on the court and in the locker room.
Despite the news of Turkey’s intentions, Kanter was characteristically un-phased: “Four years? That’s it? For all the trash I’ve been talking?’”