Kanter, Turkoglu trade barbs on Turkish politics

The volatile, longstanding dispute between Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter and Turkish government officials has added another chapter, this time in separate interviews conducted by E:60’s Jeremy Schaap, with Kanter again comparing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a dictator, and former NBA player Hedo Turkoglu, now a Turkish government official, accusing Kanter of abandoning his homeland to support a “terrorist.”

The on-camera interview with Turkoglu — now a chief adviser to Erdogan — is the first with American media about Kanter. Turkoglu, who played with several NBA teams, including the Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs, played with Kanter on the 2011 Turkish national team. He is also head of the Turkish Basketball Federation. The interviews will air at 9 a.m. ET Sunday morning on ESPN and detail the breakdown between Kanter and his former country.

Turkoglu spoke carefully and deliberately to Schaap, saying that Kanter has been “openly supporting a terrorist leader” — Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who has been living in exile from Turkey since 1999; he is Kanter’s spiritual adviser and a bitter rival of Erdogan’s. The Turkish government has accused Gulen of masterminding a failed military coup in the country in 2016. Gulen has denied the allegation, and the U.S. government has rejected Turkey’s requests to extradite him from his home in Pennsylvania.

In the 32-minute E:60 interview, Turkoglu only referenced Kanter by name once and said he had nothing to say to his former teammate: “I don’t send messages to terrorist organization supporters.” In response to a question about how Americans should view the saga between Kanter and Turkish government officials, Turkoglu said: “All I have to say to all my American fellows, be careful.”

Erdogan and Gulen were once political allies, but after a 2013 corruption scandal reached all the way to Erdogan and his family, Erdogan blamed Gulen for having a role in exposing the scandal, and their relationship fractured. Kanter has been an outspoken critic of the Turkish government and Erdogan since.

Kanter, who has played for the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks, frequently has been quoted saying Erdogan is the “Hitler of our century.” In December 2017, Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu Agency, reported that Kanter faces more than four years in prison for insulting Erdogan and Turkoglu in a series of tweets posted in 2016. In May 2017, Kanter’s Turkish passport was canceled while traveling overseas. He ultimately was able to return to the United States through London. A few weeks later, Kanter’s parents’ home was raided, and his father, Mehmet, was taken into custody and charged with being a member of a terrorist group. Enes Kanter believes the Turkish government targeted his father, a genetics professor, because of the player’s critical stance against the country’s government.

In his E:60 interview, Kanter told Schaap his public pronouncements infuriate Turkish leadership: “When I talk, or when I tweet something, or when I say anything about the government, it goes everywhere, all over the world, and they hate it. And they know there is no way they can buy me.” He told Schaap that if he returned to Turkey, he’d be killed.

While he says his resolve is strong, he told Schaap that being perceived negatively in Turkey is “tough.”

“I mean, Turkey is my country. You know, it’s my flag. That is where we’re raised. … My family is born there. So that’s why, like, it’s tough to see that … your country don’t want you. People say, ‘Where are you from?’ What should I say? ‘Turkey?’ No. They don’t even want me there.”

After the failed coup, Kanter’s father sent a letter to a Turkish newspaper, disowning his son due to his vocal support of Gulen, saying Enes had been “hypnotized” by the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. He apologized “to the Turkish people and the president for having such a son.”

Kanter told Schaap he can’t remember when he last spoke with his parents. He said he believed his father wrote the letter “so the government can leave them alone.” But a few months later, his father was dismissed from his university position.

Since the failed coup in July 2016, hundreds of thousands of Turkish residents have lost their jobs and have been subjected to criminal investigations, Amnesty International’s Turkish director, Andrew Gardner, told E:60. Tens of thousands of people have been held in pretrial prison detention, including two of his Amnesty International colleagues, for what Gardner described as “absurd, baseless allegations that they were connected to terrorism. … This is something that is really being used to target people in civil society, such as journalists, activists and human rights defenders as well.”

Schaap asked Turkoglu about the firings and jailings, and he responded: “My government [is] just exposing the people who has relationship with Fethullah Gulen organization.”

In his interview, Turkoglu repeatedly referenced Gulen as a terrorist and Kanter’s support of him as treasonous. Turkoglu said Kanter uses his NBA stardom as a “platform for propaganda of [a] terrorist leader.” He said he spoke to E:60 to raise awareness about Turkey’s view of Kanter and Gulen. “So, obviously, it’s our job sometimes to speak loudly and clearly to inform everybody about the real situation.”

Gulen’s culpability in the coup attempt has been the subject of debate in documentaries and in-depth investigative reports.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think-tank, told E:60 that the Turkish government has yet to provide concrete evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the coup attempt.

“There really is no direct evidence that Fethullah Gulen himself gave the order,” Cook says. “It certainly stands to reason that Gulenist-affiliated, or followers of Gulen within the military, took part in the attempted coup. All of the evidence that has come out in trials in Turkey are suspect, because there are serious allegations that these are confessions that were made under extreme pressure. And there’s been no independent investigation in Turkey.”

The U.S. government does not regard Gulen and his supporters as terrorists. But Gulen’s presence in the United States hasn’t been without controversy. There have been multiple investigations into Gulen-affiliated charter schools over financial and immigration concerns. And Cook told E:60 that the U.S. Department of Justice is “looking into this network of charter schools in the United States.”

Officials in Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with E:60 at their headquarters in Ankara last month. After the meeting, ESPN followed up with a list of specific questions about both Kanter’s and his father’s criminal cases. Officials would not provide any court documents involving Kanter or his father, but the government did confirm there is ongoing prosecution of Kanter. No indictment has been issued; Mehmet Kanter was conditionally released in June 2017, and according to Enes Kanter, his father’s trial is scheduled for Thursday.

Turkey asked INTERPOL to issue a Red Notice, which is “a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition,” according to INTERPOL. E:60 asked INTERPOL about the request, and the press office replied that agency officials do not comment on specific cases or individuals “except in special circumstances and with the approval of the member country concerned. We would therefore advise you to contact the Turkish authorities.”

Turkish government officials declined to provide information to E:60 that had been provided to INTERPOL. When asked for specific details, such as the evidence presented to INTERPOL or the crime Kanter has been accused of, Turkish officials did not provide them. But E:60 obtained Turkey’s INTERPOL request, and in it, the Turkish government accuses Kanter of helping fund Gulen’s movement, which it considers a terrorist organization. If he is apprehended and found guilty, Kanter’s sentence could be between seven and 15 years in prison.

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