Michael Flynn ∩ Enes Kanter = Erdoğan

by Diane Klein

Enes Kanter is afraid for his life.  And not because he might be fouled by Vince Carter or Dirk Nowitzki. The Turkish NBA player, until recently best known to Americans primarily as a double-double machine for the New York Knicks, stayed in the U.S. last week while his team traveled to London, because he was not confident his security could be assured.  What has put him at risk is his criticism of the current president of his home country, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "a dictator in all but name," who is now seeking Kanter's arrest and extradition due to the player's association with the man Erdogan blames for the failed July 15, 2016, military coup attempt against him, his former ally, Fethullah Gulen.

Kanter's ties to Gulen are real; the athlete says he was with Gulen on the night of July 15, 2016, and he is a supporter of Gulen, though it has estranged him from his family in Turkey. However, the precise role of Gulen (a legal permanent resident in the U.S. now living in Pennsylvania), or his followers, in the coup attempt in Turkey, is hotly contested.  As was widely reported at the time, "Gulen has been blamed by the Turkish government for orchestrating a failed military coup against Erdogan's government," and Al-Jazeera lays the coup squarely at the feet of "Gulenists," members of Gulen's "Hizmet" movement.  Some EU sources disagree.  What is not disputed is the Erdogan regime's desire to have its revenge on Gulen - or the lengths to which they are willing to go, to have it.

A few months before the coup attempt, back in February 2016, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, disgruntled former Obama DIA director, became a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign. As the coup unfolded, Flynn publicly applauded the coup plotters. And yet, just a few months later, Flynn was meeting with Turkish officials (including Berat Albayrak, Turkish for "Jared Kushner"), to discuss the extradition, and perhaps, the illegal rendition, of Gulen.  What had changed?  As we have since learned, Flynn was for sale.  In August, Flynn had secretly joined Turkey's payroll, even as he received classified intelligence briefings as part of the Trump campaign, without disclosing his ties to Turkey.

In fact, Flynn's involvement was part of a larger scheme, a lobbying effort launched in response to the refusal of the Obama administration to extradite Gulen.  Two men were indicted for their involvement, but not before inducing Flynn, on Election Day itself, November 8, 2016, to write and publish an op-ed smearing Gulen, without mentioning the more than half a million dollars he'd received from Turkey. Though his lies about contacts with Russia and discussions of lifting Russia sanctions got more airtime, Flynn's unlawful failure to disclose his financial relationship with Turkey also contributed to the short-lived National Security Advisor's political demise.

But the loss of their asset inside the Trump Administration left Turkey undeterred.  Erdogan's desire to get his hands on Gulen continues unabated, and its response to Kanter's criticism began with the revocation of his Turkish passport (in 2017) and most recently featured the issuance of an Interpol "red notice," a step in the process of seeking to extradite Kanter.  Under the Erdogan regime, Turkish citizens were required to return to the country at a certain time, and having not done so, Kanter is now probably officially "stateless," which may account for why he was omitted from an NBAEurope social media post about Turkish players. (Kanter himself initially blamed politics, in a tweet that included "#DictatorErdogan."  The NBA corrected the mistake, with an apology, which Kanter accepted.)

All five hundred (or so) NBA players, like all professional athletes, live in fear of a career-ending injury.  For a foreign player (especially one of the 65 who did not play for a U.S. college first), leaving the NBA usually means the expiration of their P-1A visa, the usual nonimmigrant visa for foreign athletes and entertainers, and leaving the U.S.  But most, including the other Turks in the NBA (Cedi Osman, a Macedonian-born Turk who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers; Ersan Ilyasova, of the Milwaukee Bucks; and Furkan Korkmaz, of the Philadelphia 76ers), can return home.  Kanter would find himself a deportable stateless alien with nowhere to go.  Making matters worse, according to the Center for Migration Studies, the U.S. lacks "a viable legislative framework for dealing with statelessness," a situation that "sets the United States apart from other developed nations."

Fortunately for Kanter, he has been a legal permanent resident since 2016. Otherwise, he would be left to seek asylym here, like Eastern Bloc athletes who defected during the Cold War period.  Eligibility for asylum depends on the applicant presenting evidence of a well-founded fear of persecution in the home country, based on one or more of a list of reasons, including the applicant's political opinions.  Is Kanter's fear well-founded?

At least one former NBA player  - who now also happens to be a senior advisor to Erdogan - doesn't think so.  One of Kanter's most vocal critics in the Erdrogan government is the first Turkish NBA player ever, Hedo Turkoglu, who played for fifteen years (2000-2015). His tweets about Kanter accuse Kanter of "trying to get the limelight" and (in a phrase that seems to have been mangled by Google translate) "cover[] up the contradictions in his sports career," and claims it is visa issues, not fear, preventing Kanter from traveling. For his part, Kanter calls Turkoglu a "puppy" and "lap dog" being forced by Erdogan to make such statements. It seems safe to say that never before has trash-talk by hoop stars featured such a colorful combination of immigration law and Turkish politics - nor have the stakes been so real.

Notwithstanding Turkoglu's reassurances, Kanter seems clearly to be at risk.  While he might be (relatively) safe and secure in the U.S. and Canada (with whom the U.S. has special arrangements in place), and certainly more so than those waiting on immigration courts shuttered due to the shutdown, or targeted by Stephen Miller's plan to force Guatemalan, Honduran, and El Salvadorean children to avail themselves of a non-existent in-country process for asylum-seeking, Kanter's fears are real. His father, Dr. Mehmet Kanter, was fired from his academic position, and in June, 2018, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The indictment against Enes seeks a four-year sentence.  In contemplating travel abroad, surely Kanter is also thinking of the SkripalsJamal Khashoggi, and Otto Warmbier - all victims of authoritarian regimes to which the Trump Administration has cozied up.

Bravely, Kanter has responded by continuing to speak out, most recently, in the Washington Post. Unlike the overwhelming majority of those seeking asylum, fleeing unstable and oppressive regimes around the world, Kanter is a high-profile international athlete - one who will earn nearly $20 million this year - not what most people think of when they imagine a "refugee" or person eligible for asylum. But in fact, Kanter would be joining many of his countrymen.  In 2016, the year of the failed coup attempt, more than 23,000 Turks sought asylum outside their country.  Nearly one thousand sought protection in the U.S. that year, nearly three times as many as the year before.  If Kanter can use his high-profile position to continue to draw attention to why it matters that the liberal democracies offer asylum to those who need it - including those fleeing autocrats Trump has praised - so much the better.

In this precarious time, with the institutions of liberal democracy under attack worldwide, perhaps we should be glad for $20 million athletes who - unlike Trump appointees - can neither be bought nor intimidated by dictators.