Enes Kanter isn’t able to play basketball this week, but the New York Knicks center isn’t out with an injury.
The Turkish player and critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unable to travel to London for an NBA game this week amid concerns that he could be kidnapped or killed by Turkish agents, so he spent Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where he met with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Kanter, who faces charges in Turkey after publicly criticizing Erdogan, is unable to speak with his father, a Turkish professor who was charged in June 2018 with “membership in a terror group” by the Turkish government. Kanter himself was charged with “insulting” Erdogan after posting a series of critical tweets about the Turkish leader in 2017.
“My teammates and even my friends are always [asking] me if I’m crazy or not, why ... you keep talking about these issues because [my] family is still back in Turkey,” Kanter said. “People don’t understand, I play in the NBA and I have a very big platform so I’m using this big platform to be the voice of people who don’t have a voice.”
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The meeting between Kanter and Rubio came 24 hours after President Donald Trump spoke with Erdogan about Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Trump threatened that the U.S. would “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacks U.S.-backed Kurds amid the planned withdrawal of U.S. military forces in Syria.
Rubio said he takes a different approach to foreign policy negotiations than Trump, who has not publicly commented on Kanter’s situation. Kanter said he disagrees with Trump’s ongoing dialogue with Erdogan.
“The president’s approach to foreign policy has largely been to not publicly antagonize leaders he’s trying to reach accommodation or agreement with,” Rubio said. “I’ve long said that human rights and respect for democracy should be at the forefront of everything we do and I have a different style about that.”
Rubio has spoken about Kanter’s treatment in the past, and the two have exchanged supportive messages on social media.
The Turkish government requested that the U.S. extradite Kanter to face a four-year prison sentence. Kanter, who is not a U.S. citizen and does not have a U.S. passport, is fearful that Erdogan will use Interpol, an international law enforcement organization, to have him arrested if he leaves North America.
“On Thursday, I won’t be able to go to work when my team, the New York Knicks, plays the Washington Wizards in London,” Kanter wrote on Tuesday in a Washington Post op-ed. “I do not yet have U.S. citizenship, or a U.S. passport, which could offer me protection, so I can’t risk traveling overseas Even if I did, I wouldn’t travel this week to Britain, where I easily could be kidnapped or killed by Turkish agents.”
Kanter hasn’t left the U.S. or Canada since May 2017, when he was forced to leave Indonesia while attending a basketball camp because the Indonesian police went searching for him when the Turkish government told them Kanter was dangerous. While attempting to travel back to the U.S., Kanter’s Turkish passport was canceled and he was detained in Romania before U.S. senators from Oklahoma (where Kanter was playing at the time) intervened to bring him back to the U.S.
Rubio said he’s concerned that Kanter’s situation could spur the Turkish government to harass and imprison U.S. citizens living and working in Turkey, where dozens of U.S. athletes play professional basketball. The Turkish government released American pastor Andrew Brunson in October 2018 after imprisoning him for two years on charges that he had links with banned political parties that tried to oust Erdogan in a 2016 coup attempt.
“I do have reason to believe that the Turkish government under Erdogan views Americans and arresting Americans and holding Americans as a valuable leverage point, a concession they can give the U.S. government in exchange for some policy,” Rubio said. “When you have a regime that’s willing to arrest people or make up charges in order to create leverage, as they did with pastor Brunson, of course I’m concerned.”
Kanter also met with other lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Rubio, a Heat fan, joked that he’s trying to engineer a trade that would bring Kanter to Miami, where incumbent center Hassan Whiteside has been the subject of trade speculation.
“I’m working on a trade even as we speak,” Rubio said. “I shouldn’t even joke about that. I’ll probably get a tampering charge or something.”