Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter blasted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for "using his power to abuse human rights" on Friday after skipping a game in London over fears he would be arrested upon landing.
The New York Knicks centre was meant to travel for a game held in London on Thursday but decided against after reports emerged that he had been put on Interpol’s Red Notice list — essentially a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition — by Istanbul’s state prosecutor. Euronews could not confirm the report.
Turkish authorities accuse Kanter, a vocal critic of Erdogan, of financially supporting exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who they hold responsible for the failed July 2016 coup attempt.
Gulen, a former close ally of Erdogan, drew the ire of the then-Prime Minister when he criticised the government's response to the Gezi Park protests in 2013.
Turkish authorities now consider Gulen's Hizmet movement to be a terrorist organisation and launched a major crack down on his followers, sending tens of thousands to jail after the failed coup and closing the movement's schools.
'No freedom in Turkey'
In an interview with Euronews, Kanter said authorities in his home country are seeking his arrest because "I'm talking against the government so that's why the Turkish government calls me a terrorist."
"That shows there is no freedom of speech in Turkey and that's why there are a lot of journalists in jail.
"There are over 80,000 people right now in jail waiting for help. And 17,000 of them are women and there are 700 babies in jail with their mothers," he added.
He also accused Turkish authorities of using Gulen, whom he visits "once every two-three weeks", as a "scapegoat."
"Erdogan uses his power to abuse human rights in Turkey and that’s why there’s no democracy, that’s why there’s no freedom in Turkey," he said.
'I hope Trump will help'
While his teammates were in London, the 26-year-old athlete travelled to Washington to meet with US Representatives Adam Schiff and Marco Rubio. He also penned an editorial for the Washington Post.
In the article, entitled "Anyone who speaks out against Erdogan is a target. That includes me," Kanter recounts how he had to flee Indonesia, where he was running a charity children's basketball camp last year, after being warned police was looking for him. His passport was then cancelled and he later learnt Turkey had sent out an international warrant for his arrest.
Now, Kanter wants to speak to US President Donald Trump to discuss human rights in Turkey.
"I will reach out to them (the US administration) in the future and talk about the issues going on in Turkey," he told Euronews.
"I will definitely talk about the journalists in jail, all the innocent people, all the people who lost their jobs. My dad was a professor and he lost his job two years ago just because he’s my dad.
"I hope he (Trump) will take some steps and do something about it," he added.
NBA 'supports' Kanter
The NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, deplored that Enes Kanter could not travel to London during a press conference.
"There's nothing more important to me as the commissioner of the league than the security and the safety of our players," he said.
"I support Enes as a player in this league, and I support the platform that our players have to speak out on issues that are important to them," he added.
The Human Rights Foundation urged Interpol to reject the Turkish prosecutor's request to issue a Red Notice arrest warrant against Kanter, in a letter released on social media.
"Mr Kanter's critique of President Erdogan's regime falls under the protected right of freedom of expression in the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and his association with the Hizmet movement falls under his protected rights of freedom of religion and freedom of association," it said.
The NGO added: "It is clear that Turkey's request of issuing an arrest warrant for Mr. Kanter is purely motivated by political considerations."
'I love my country'
Kanter told Euronews he hopes to one day return to his native country, which he said, "could have been the bridge of modern Islam and the West."
"I love my country, I love my people, I love my flag," he said.
"I pray for my country every day and I will definitely want to return to my country one day if I can. But right now, it looks definitely impossible," he deplored.