Enes Kanter was preparing for Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals Tuesday when his teammate Evan Turner posed a question: What would Kanter do if their team reached the NBA Finals and faced off against the Toronto Raptors, requiring a trip across the northern border?
Kanter, 26, had his Turkish passport revoked in 2017. Then, in January, Turkish prosecutors told reporters they would seek to arrest him through an Interpol “red notice” — a request to governments around the world to locate and detain an individual. The 6-foot-11-inch Portland Trail Blazers center has been a high-profile target of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of his ties with exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen and his criticisms of Erdogan as a dictator.
“Anyone who speaks out against him is a target. I am definitely a target,” Kanter wrote in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year. “And Erdogan wants me back in Turkey where he can silence me.” When the government accused Kanter of having terror ties he tweeted: “The only thing I terrorize is the rim.”
Kanter, who has a US green card but will not be eligible for citizenship for at least two more years, has experienced a career rebirth in Portland, starting at the center position for a team that lost its starter, Jusuf Nurkic, to a broken leg. Released in February by the New York Knicks, Kanter helped the Blazers reach their first Western Conference Finals in 19 years.
But if the Blazers somehow get by the three-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, it’s unclear whether Kanter will be able to fulfill his decade-old dream of playing in the NBA Finals. Earlier this year, he skipped a regular-season game in Toronto for fear that the red notice had been issued and Canadian authorities would detain him.
“I have no idea. I might just sit at home and play the home games,” Kanter recalled telling Turner in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It’s very tough.”
In the meantime, US politicians, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, have stepped up to advocate for Kanter. On Tuesday, Wyden wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requesting that authorities ensure Kanter would be allowed safe passage and that any potential request to detain him would be ignored.
“I believe strongly that Enes, and others like him, should have the right to speak their minds and I unequivocally condemn the abuse of red notices by Erdogan and others to try and silence peaceful critics,” Wyden told BuzzFeed News Wednesday.
In the absence of a guarantee of safe travel, Kanter will likely not risk crossing the border.
“If we don’t get any promise from the Canadian government or from Justin Trudeau — I don’t think I see myself going there,” he said. Beyond the red notice, Kanter said he has received death threats online on a weekly basis.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Canadian immigration official said that while they could not comment on specific cases, every situation is evaluated in accordance with Canadian laws.
An Interpol red notice is not an international arrest warrant; instead it serves as a mechanism to communicate globally a country’s request to locate and detain someone. The approval process for red notices has been criticized for lack of oversight and the Department of Justice has stated that the US “does not consider a red notice alone to be a sufficient basis for the arrest of a subject because it does not meet the requirements for arrest.”
Kanter’s case, experts say, is a window into the Turkish government’s abuse of the red notice system, one that has upended the lives of Turkish citizens living abroad, many of whom don't have the fame of an NBA player. Beyond the threat of detention and extradition, the notices can carry other consequences, like the cancelation of bank accounts.
“Turkey probably attempts more abuse than any other country put together,” said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who has closely studied the issue. He estimates that the Turkish government requested thousands of red notices a few years ago, including journalists and dissidents, after a failed coup against Erdogan.
A search of Interpol’s public database did not reveal an active red notice against Kanter, but most notices are not disseminated publicly. In the absence of a formal red notice, Turkey could have also messaged Canadian authorities directly about Kanter’s case and requested detention, a form called “diffusion.”
Kanter’s case, Bromund said, is the “most ridiculous thing” he and fellow Interpol experts have heard in recent years. “And we’ve heard a lot of ridiculous things.”
It’s possible Turkey was not able to get the red notice approved but instead decided to do the next best thing: publicize it as much as possible.
“In terms of a practical risk of going to Canada, it’s probably slight but I don’t think it’s nonexistent,” Bromund said. “It’s not my neck on the line. I can see why he might take a different point of view.”
Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir, who is based in Washington, DC, knows full well the experience of being targeted by Erdogan’s government, the global leader in jailing journalists. Last year, the Turkish government sought an Interpol red notice against him, making him fearful of traveling or speaking out against Erdogan.
Tanir said that the requests, often announced in pro-government media, also serve another purpose: to connect those named with keywords like “wanted,” “fugitive,” or “terrorist” in headlines.
“It’s a big harassment,” he said.
Kanter recognizes that his status as a famous NBA player with connections to politicians in Washington affords him a level of privilege that others don’t have.
“There are thousands of people out there. Their story is way worse than mine,” he said.
Kanter is focusing his energy this week on getting past the Warriors, the Trail Blazers' competitor in Game 2 Thursday night in Oakland. If anything, the concerns facing him outside of basketball put the game in context.
“The stress of basketball is nothing to me,” he said. “I deal with so much stress outside of basketball, nothing about these games to me is stressful.”