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Turkish basketball player Kanter cancels UK visit over assassination fears

Enes Kanter is a public supporter of cleric Fethullah Gulen who Turkey blames for a 2016 coup attempt
Enes Kanter, right, of New York Knicks grabs a rebound against Los Angeles Lakers (AFP)

Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter, a government critic and supporter of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, has cancelled an appearance in the UK over fears for his safety in the country.

Kanter, a centre player for the New York Knicks, was scheduled to play against the Washington Wizards in London on 17 January, but dropped out because he said he feared an assassination attempt.

"The Turkish government is obsessed with me," he told BBC Radio on Sunday.

"I speak out against [President] Erdogan, and so I don't feel safe. It's sad as I love Harry Potter, and wanted to come see all of London so badly, but I can't take the risk."

A Knicks official later said that Kanter was not travelling to London because of a visa issue, the New York Times reported. Kanter holds a US green card that allows him to live and work in the country on a permanent basis, but he currently has no passport.

Kanter said, however, that this was just an attempt to prevent bad PR by the team.

"It's not a visa issue. They [the Knicks] are not going to come out and say 'Enes Kanter may get killed' - they just want to say visa issues so there is no negative energy on my team mates.

The Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported in December 2017 that a Turkish prosecutor had asked for Kanter to be jailed for up to four years for insulting Erdogan.

In August 2016, Kanter was disowned by his family for his public support of Gulen, who the Turkish government holds responsible for a July 2016 coup attempt. In response, Kanter wrote a letter in which he said he was informally changing his name to "Gulen" and said he loved the cleric "more than his family".

Turkey revoked Kanter's passport in May 2017, and a Turkish court has declared him a fugitive for his support of Gulen.

Turkey has been involved in abductions and attempted abductions of over 100 Gulen supporters, and employees of institutions linked to Gulen's Hizmet organisation, from countries including Kosovo, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Gabon in the past two years.

However, so far there have been no such attempts in the UK, which is home to a large number of Turkish dissidents, including Gulenists.

"I'm not saying that Erdogan's going to do an operation [against me] in London but it's more [the fact that] there are lots of crazy supporters of his," Kanter told the BBC.

He said that his team's security had told him it would have been unsafe to leave his room while he stayed in London.

"You can say that I'm paranoid but I don't want to take the risk," he said.

'Past incidents'

Gulen denies having orchestrated the 2016 coup, as has Kanter, who has maintained a close relationship with him.

In an interview with the sports website The Ringer in October, Kanter claimed he had been with the cleric in Pennsylvania watching the events of the coup unfold on TV.

“I was with him the whole time, and do you know what he was doing? He was sitting there watching on television and praying for his country. That’s it," he said.

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The basketball star’s father, former professor Mehmet Kanter, was indicted in Turkey last year and charged with "membership of a terror group", AP reported, although he had publicly disavowed his son's beliefs.

Kanter played for the Turkish national team at the 2011 European Championships but was controversially left out of the squad for the 2015 tournament.

He said it was because he had expressed support for Gulen, but national coach Ergin Ataman said his omission was because he had not apologised to teammates over "past incidents".

Since the coup attempt, more than 50,000 people have been jailed in Turkey pending trial and 150,000 state workers including teachers, judges and soldiers have been suspended or dismissed in a crackdown on alleged supporters of Gulen.