What is it like to have a $500,000 bounty on your head? Ask Enes Kanter Freedom
The former NBA player opens up on the recent death threats he has faced and what it says about the state of global politics.
I first met Enes Kanter Freedom during a trip to Norway in 2022.
It was near the end of May; spring was just beginning to give way to summer and the the air smelled of rainstorms and clean-cut grass. We were there to participate in the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference hosted by the Human Rights Foundation that brings together some of the world’s leading activists and dissidents—the firebrand enemies of authoritarian states.
I was invited to moderate a panel discussion on the trend of despots using sports for political gain, a process known as sportswashing. Enes, meanwhile, was there to receive the 2022 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent—an award he earned for using his substantial platform as an renowned athlete to condemn Turkey’s pivot towards authoritarianism under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
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As one of Erdoğan’s most vocal critics, Enes has had to endure the wrath of the Turkish government. Authorities have targeted his entire family, raiding the family home in 2016 and shunning them from participating in civil society, all in an attempt to silence the basketball player. During a visit to Indonesia in 2017, the Turkish government attempted to kidnap the athlete using local police. Turkish authorities later revoked Enes’ Turkish passport, rendering him stateless at the time, while prosecutors sought an international arrest warrant from Interpol after accusing him of being a member in a terror organization.
Enes’ activism is not limited to Turkish politics. Among other issues, the former Boston Celtics center has been critical of the National Basketball Association’s growing relationship with China despite the government’s well-documented human rights abuses. He has not played for the NBA since being traded and cut last season and has since stated that he believes his activism led to him being blackballed.
On our second day in Oslo, I spotted Enes in the lobby of our hotel and made my way over to greet him. Dressed in a dark sports jacket and a black t-shirt and jeans, the former NBA player towered over the crowd lingering around him. And though I was also a sizeable 6′4,” I felt him eclipse me as he leaned over to shake my hand. I told him that I had interviewed him for The Guardian two years earlier and was surprised to find that he remembered me and our conversation at the time.
We ran into each other several more times during the conference, including after a gala dinner where we chatted about his apparent exile from the NBA, his pivot to human rights activism as a full-time pursuit, and the looming shadow of authoritarianism over the sports world. And while I did not interview him at the time, we agreed that we would make time for that at a later date.
Then came the news that the Turkish government had placed Enes on the most-wanted-terrorists list and was offering 10 million Turkish Lira (roughly $500,000) for information leading to his capture. I reached out to Enes and asked if he would be willing to talk about it. He was.
The incident occurred while Enes was leading a basketball camp in Vatican City in January 2023. He received a call from the FBI informing him that he should return to the U.S. immediately.
“I thought they were joking,” Enes told me during a phone call last week. “At that point, I didn’t know what to do.”
The next day, Enes booked himself onto a flight back to the United States and met with the FBI upon his arrival. They advised him not to leave the country for the foreseeable future, as the published bounty could trigger “mafias, professional killers and actual bad people to try and do something.”
The former Boston Celtics player, who became a U.S. citizen in 2021, has since posted several of the threats he received on Instagram, including one that read “we’ll be waiting to shoot you in the head” if you leave America. Another read: “We will cut your head off of your body and feed it to dogs you traitor.”
Enes told me he remains in constant contact with the FBI and local law enforcement, but added that he is more worried about the safety of the other dissidents on the list who do not have the privilege of being professional basketball players.
“This is not only about me,” he said.
The list included more than a dozen journalists as well as former Turkish footballer Hakan Şükür, who became a target of Erdoğan after criticizing his regime in 2013.
Şükür, who scored the fastest goal in FIFA World Cup history at 11 seconds against South Korea in 2002, has lived in exile in the U.S. since 2015, while his name and past achievements have become taboo in Turkey. A football announcer for Turkish public broadcaster TRT was removed from the broadcast during a 2022 World Cup match after reminding viewers of Şükür’s World Cup achievement.
Enes revealed that he has been lobbying government officials in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere to impose sanctions and other “concrete action” on Erdoğan to limit his influence.
“Tweeting about it and condemning it is good—it brings awareness—but it doesn’t bring any kind of change,” Enes said.
The former NBA player also noted that this is an opportune time to target Erdoğan given the upcoming elections in Turkey. Erdoğan is facing a significant challenge from Turkey’s opposition, which has collected into a six-party coalition headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a former accountant and longtime bureaucrat. The coalition is united under the sole aim of removing Erdoğan from power and restoring the country’s parliamentary democracy.
With less than a month to go until Turkey’s general election on May 14, 2023., Enes has continued to lobby Congress and Senate about Erdoğan and the human rights issues in Turkey. He wrote letters to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and attempted to engage with President Joe Biden, neither of whom responded despite the threat facing a U.S. citizen.
“How can a foreign government put a bounty on an American citizen’s head on U.S. soil?”
Now, after two decades in power, the possibility of toppling Erdoğan is no longer unthinkable. However, if the president were to survive the upcoming election, Enes tells me he plans to continue using his platform to speak out against human rights abuses in Turkey and the continued deterioration of its democratic values—even at great personal cost.
“Erdoğan is trying to do everything he can to silence opposition. I am not the opposition. I am not running for political office. The only thing I am asking him to do is to free political prisoners, bring back democracy, and care about human rights.
“That is all I am asking from him.”
The second part of my discussion with Enes Kanter Freedom will be published in the coming days.