NBA star Enes Kanter has said he has received “hundreds and hundreds of death threats” almost every day since he announced on Friday that he would not travel to London with the New York Knicks for fear of assassination.
A critic of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of his native Turkey, Kanter told CNN’s Hala Gorani that the only place in the world he felt safe was the US.
“First, I would love to go to London,” the New York Knicks center said Wednesday. “It’s just very sad because I’m scared of my life because Erdogan’s operation in [a] foreign country. The operations are very famous [for] hunting down people who are speaking out against the government.”
Asked when he anticipated he would feel safe to travel outside of the US, Kanter – who is set to become a US citizen in two years’ time – said: “First, I would love to say I appreciate all the New York Knicks fans and our American people that show me all the support because now I feel like an American because I’m here, I’m going to become an American citizen in 2021, but right now, besides America, I don’t really feel safe anywhere else in the world.”
READ: Kanter to miss London trip for fears of assassination
READ: Turkey canceled passport over political views – Kanter
‘Sad to see my people threaten me’
According to ESPN, following the Knicks’ win against the Los Angeles Lakers the 26-year-old called Erdogan a lunatic, a maniac and a dictator and said he would not be playing the Washington Wizards in London on January 17.
The basketball player, who has previously referred to Erdogan as “the Hitler of our century,” has said he felt London presented a threat because of the large number of Turkish communities in the city. “There are lots of crazy supporters of his,” he told the BBC earlier this week.
“After I made that comment about London, I have been getting hundreds and hundreds [of] death threats almost every day,” Kanter explained to CNN.
“Very scared to get them. I’ve been getting them on social media. It’s very sad seeing my people, Turkish people, threaten me like that.”
Kanter added: “I talk to my team about it. First they said you can go to London but you cannot leave your room, you have to be with the security 24/7 and all you can do is just go to practice, come back to your room; go to the game, come back to your room.
“And then later we talked to my teammates and the foreign office. They said let’s not risk it. Let’s just stay here. You can cheer us from New York just because I did not want to risk it.”
In May 2017, while he was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kanter was stopped in a Romanian airport after the Turkish embassy canceled his passport, arriving back in the US a day later.
He went on to post on social media that he believed the move was a consequence of his political views and criticism of Erdogan.
The following month Kanter said his father, Mehmet, a University professor, had been detained by the Turkish government because of his son’s political views. The player reportedly does not speak with his family for fear that it may endanger them. In 2016, Kanter’s family publicly disowned him because of his political stances.
Kanter ‘irrational,’ says Turkish government adviser
In a strongly-worded statement posted on Twitter on Monday, Hidayet “Hedo” Turkoglu – a former NBA player who is now a chief adviser to Erdogan – described Kanter’s most recent remarks as “irrational” and a part of the player’s “smear campaign” against Turkey.
Turkoglu claimed Kanter was not traveling to London because of problems with his visa rather than fear of assassination, tweeting: “We know that he has not been able to travel to many countries due to visa issues since 2017.
“In other words, Kanter cannot 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.”
A Knicks official had told CNN that the decision not to travel to London was based on visa issues, but Kanter said he had explained the situation to his team and that they now understood.
Kanter insisted that he could travel anywhere in the world and proceeded to display what he said was a travel document to the CNN cameras in an effort to prove his point.
“It’s very sad because we were really good friends back in 2011,” said Kanter of his relationship with Turkoglu.
“I know he did not do such a thing like that. I know the government made him do things like that.
“He put a tweet out there and said it’s a visa issue, then after that I talked to Knicks and I tried to explain it’s not a visa issue. Yes, I can go to London if I want to. They said the best thing is just stay there and be safe for now.
“Sadly, the Turkish media took that and used it against me and said ‘Enes is just lying.’ I can show you this document, the whole world, that I’m not lying. I have the travel document that I can go anywhere in the world.”
NBA spokesman Michael Bass described the situation to CNN as “unique and unprecedented,” while the UK’s Home Office, a department of the UK government which is responsible for issuing visas, has said it would not comment on individual cases.
The Turkish cleric accused of plotting a coup
Kanter regularly visits Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for nearly 20 years. Gulen has been accused by Erdogan of masterminding a failed 2016 military coup against him – a charge he has denied.
The reclusive imam has a loyal following – known as Gulenists – in Turkey, who all subscribe to the Hizmet movement, which identifies itself as an Islam-inspired cultural, civic, and educational movement. The Turkish government has labeled it a terrorist organization.
“Turkey is the number one country in the world that puts journalists in the jail. It’s just very sad because the Turkish government is trying to get Gulan back to Turkey for five years with no evidence,” Kanter said.
“Mr Gulan doesn’t even have a parking ticket. He’s an 80-year-old sick man who lives in Pennsylvania. He lives a simple life, so he does not even have a parking ticket in the US so there is no way that America will send him back to Turkey.
“All he’s doing is trying to bring universal peace in this world. I try to go visit him once every two, three weeks and every time I go visit him he says “the most important thing in life is leave your differences on the table and try to find out what we have in common.” It’s very sad to see the Turkish government talking about him like that.”
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The Turkish government has long demanded the US extradite Gulen, but in November 2018 US President Donald Trump – who has described Erdogan as a friend – said he was not considering extraditing the cleric “at this point.”