Sen. Ed Markey had already been an admirer of Enes Kanter’s political activism from afar, welcoming the newly acquired Celtics center to Massachusetts in an exchange on Twitter last week. This week, Markey got to greet the 6-foot-11 basketball player in person — and even offer him some help.
According the Bay State Democrat’s office, Kanter met with Markey and Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to discuss how to help the 27-year-old travel outside of the United States next season as part of his NBA duties.
International travel normally wouldn’t be a problem for a celebrity professional athlete. However, Kanter is in a unique situation.
As a native of Turkey, Kanter been outspokenly critical of the authoritarian politics of his home country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and supports an oppositional movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who espouses more moderate views. This has resulted in Erdogan’s government taking retroactive action against Kanter, including revoking his passport and detaining him at a Romania airport in 2017 (the U.S. government had to intervene to secure Kanter’s release).
This past January, the Turkish government put out a international warrant for Kanter’s arrest, claiming he was suspected of being part of a terrorist organization. Kanter, then a member of the New York Knicks, subsequently skipped the team’s game in London that month and has not traveled internationally out of fear he could be arrested — or even assassinated. He told The Daily Beast at the time that he was receiving several death threats a week over social media.
Kanter was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in February and helped the team reach the Western Conference Finals after starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a season-ending leg injury. The series — in which the Blazer were swept by the Golden State Warriors — reportedly wasn’t televised in Turkey because of Kanter’s involvement.
This offseason, he sign a two-year deal to join the Celtics. While both his new and former U.S. senators say they respect what Kanter can do on the hardwood, they’re also concerned about his rights off the court.
“Setting aside our respect for Enes Kanter as a professional basketball player and athlete, we applaud Mr. Kanter’s willingness to speak freely against authoritarianism, even as he and his family are threatened,” Markey and Wyden said in a joint statement Tuesday.
“We oppose any attempt by foreign leaders to weaponize international law enforcement to track down and punish those who rightly call out their oppression,” they said. “We are committed to working with Mr. Kanter so that he can travel safely outside the United States to fully do his job and exercise his right to free speech.”
In addition to skipping the London game, Kanter also did not travel with the Blazers for their away game last season against the Toronto Raptors due to the Turkish arrest warrant. Boston 25’s Tom Leyden reported last week that clearance to travel to Toronto was a particular focus of Kanter’s meeting with Markey. As fellow Atlantic Division members, the Celtics play the Raptors in Toronto twice a season.
In a statement, Kanter thanked Markey and Wyden in particular for their leadership Tuesday, “not only for their efforts to restore basic human rights for myself, like travel [and] freedom of speech, but also indirectly helping millions of others in my shoes under Dictator Erdogan’s oppression in Turkey.”
Kanter was apparently making the rounds Tuesday on Capitol Hill. On social media, he also posted photos with Oklahoma Sen. James Langford (Kanter played two and a half seasons for the Oklahoma City Thunder), Indiana Rep. Andre Carson, and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Mastro.