Enes Kanter Detained at Airport, Reportedly Facing Deportation

The Turkish-born center has been critical of Turkey's increasingly autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. If he's deported, it could land him in jail.

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May 20 2017, 4:00pm

Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After the Oklahoma City Thunder's season ended last month, Enes Kanter's Twitter feed got really good. The Turkish-born big man is generally a good follow, as NBA players go, voluble and goofy and prone to saying "wow" into his phone's camera a lot. The global goodwill tour on which he embarked shortly after the Houston Rockets sent the Thunder into the off-season has given him plenty of opportunities to do that, and given his followers plenty of opportunities to see him high-fived by starstruck, bowl-cut students in Hong Kong or receiving weird fish-aided foot treatments in Thailand. Mostly, Kanter has been working with kids, running youth clinics in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

On Saturday, Kanter left Jakarta to fly to Bucharest, Romania, for the eighth stop on his tour. According to a video Kanter posted on Twitter Saturday morning, he's still in the airport. Kanter is being detained, he says, because his Turkish passport was suddenly and unexpectedly canceled by the Turkish embassy. If Kanter is deported to Turkey, he could be arrested.

As Kanter notes in the video, he has been critical in the past—and, as he reiterates in the video, the present, as well—of Turkey's increasingly autocratic autocrat, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. More to the point, Kanter has been supportive, with words and money, of the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan blames for the failed coup attempt against him last year, and also for many other things. This has caused a good deal of strife in Kanter's life; last year, he posted a statement on Twitter explaining that his family had disowned him for his anti-Erdoğan and pro-Gülen views. But his detention in Romania marks an ominous new turn, and not just because Kanter could face charges in his native Turkey.

Kanter has not changed his approach to Erdoğan, as evidenced by the fact that he calls him "a bad, bad guy," "a dictator," and "the Hitler of our century" all in the span of one 45-second video. And while it's not quite right to say that Erdoğan has changed his approach to being an autocrat, he has certainly steered into the anti-democratic skid of late. Last month, Erdoğan narrowly won a public referendum in Turkey that gave him near-dictatorial powers. Last week, while in Washington D.C. to receive congratulations from and discuss the U.S. electoral college system with President Trump, Erdoğan's bodyguards beat up people protesting against him, which they duly did right on D.C.'s embassy row, while D.C. police tried in vain to get them to stop.

It is not out of character, in other words, for Erdoğan to arbitrarily suspend the passport of a prominent public critic. It would not be remotely out of character for him to arrest and jail such a critic, either. Already, tens of thousands of civil servants, journalists, educators, and others have been fired in purges sweeping the nation, and thousands have been arrested. It is evidently not in Enes Kanter's character to stop speaking out against all of that. That was always going to lead to some sort of conflict, probably, but that doesn't make it any less startling or disturbing to watch it happen.

Saturday, as it happens, is Kanter's 25th birthday. If you would like to wish him well on Twitter, maybe use the hashtag #FreeEnes.

UPDATE: The New York Times is reporting that Kanter has been released, and is currently on a flight to London. "Today at around 1 p.m. local time an individual arrived from Frankfurt," a spokesman for the Romanian border police told the Times. "My colleagues established that his travel documents weren't valid, that they had been canceled by his home country, so he wasn't allowed to enter the country. At around 5 p.m., he left the airport on a flight to London." The Times reported that both the NBA and the U.S. State Department had lobbied for his release.