How foreign authoritarian rule reaches into the U.S.
The U.S. government says authoritarian regimes are threatening, coercing and even attempting to kidnap and murder citizens living in the U.S.
“It’s big and it appears to be getting bigger over the last few years,” the FBI’s Roman Rozhavsky said.
“We’ve never seen a concerted campaign by certain governments where they’re putting the full force of their intelligence services and all their capabilities on it.”
Today, On Point: How foreign authoritarian rule reaches into American society.
Enes Kanter Freedom, Turkish-American professional basketball player. He played for the NBA with the Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, the New York Knicks and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Yana Gorokhovskaia, senior research analyst at the non-profit advocacy group Freedom House. Her work focuses on transnational repression in the U.S. and around the world.
Find a link to Freedom House’s most recent report on transnational repression here.
Roman Rozhavsky, section chief in the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
Find a link to the FBI’s website on transnational repression, including information on how to report your experiences here.
Lucy Usoyan, Kurdish-American protester.
“Leslie,” Chinese political activist living in the U.S.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Enes Kanter Freedom starts our show today. He’s a Turkish American professional basketball player who spent more than a decade in the NBA. He was drafted third overall in 2011 and went to the Utah Jazz. From there, his career as center took him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Portland Trailblazers, and the Boston Celtics.
So in the United States, Enes Kanter Freedom is a star. But in Turkey, he’s a wanted man and considered a terrorist by the Turkish government, which is why the Turkish government has put a half million-dollar bounty on his head. And Enes Kanter Freedom joins us now. Welcome to On Point.
ENES KANTER FREEDOM: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Now we can’t disclose the location that you’re joining us from.
CHAKRABARTI: Because of the danger that you’re under regarding the bounty that’s been put on your head. Why does the Turkish government consider you to be such a dangerous person?
FREEDOM: They declared me as a terrorist just because I talk about the human rights violations and political prisoners over there.
I’m a basketball player and I have nothing to do with politics. I have never in my life talked about politics in the United States or anywhere else. Just because of then being a platform, just because of everything I speak becomes a big conversation anywhere else in the world, so they really hate that.
So they’re literally trying to do everything they can do silence me. So I was like, you know what? This is a God’s gift and I’m going to use it for good.
CHAKRABARTI: What kind of things have you said that you think have drawn the ire of President Erdogan and the Turkish government?
FREEDOM: There are many human rights violations that are happening over there in Turkey right now.
If you look at all the groups like the Kurdish people, Gülen movement, seculars, or many other ones are being persecuted by the Erdogan regime, and also if you’re in Turkey, and if you say anything against the Turkish government, you’ll be in jail the next day. But if you’re outside of Turkey, and if you say anything, they put your name on Interpol list with the red notice.
So any country you go to, if they have an extradition deal with Turkey, then you will be deported back to Turkey and you will become a political prisoner the rest of your life.
And I am so shocked about it.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re shocked about it. Okay.
FREEDOM: Because these countries out there, like Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China, they use an Interpol to hunt their opponents. And how can Interpol … [abide] that.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, by the way, I didn’t mean to sound surprised at your shock. Because the truth is it probably does come as a shock to many Americans, that just for someone saying what they believe about either our own government or any other international government that can land you on a terrorist list, right?
Because you’ve been put on Turkey’s 2023 most wanted terrorist list. Now there are other, there are some actual terrorists on that list. There’s many journalists I know. So like everyone’s being lumped together by the Erdogan government.
FREEDOM: I remember I was actually doing a basketball camp in the Vatican, and I met the Pope.
The next day they put my name on that list. Most wanted, terrorist list. I remember having a conversation with the FBI and they said, “Get back to America immediately.” Because that is going to trigger a lot of I guess the mafias or serial killers. And the next flight, I took it, came to America and now every place I go, I have to get in touch with the FBI and say, “Hey, I’m going to this city. I’m going to that city. I’m going to out of a country.”
So they have to follow my every step. And it is unacceptable. Because I was, I had a hearing in the Senate, and I asked the senators and congressmen, I was like, “Listen, how can a foreign government can put a bounty on a U. S. citizen’s head in America?” They had no answer.
This question has been asked to Secretary Blinken and many of the cabinet members, but we had not heard anything from them, because it is unacceptable. They literally put my life in danger in America, and I’m a U.S. citizen.
CHAKRABARTI: So it seems like what you’re saying is that the FBI thinks there is a clear danger or threat to your life.
FREEDOM: Of course. Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Has anything happened? Any kind of, I hope not, but any kind of close calls or anything that that you think was came near to actually be threatening your safety?
FREEDOM: Online, yes, of course, I get death threats, daily, from not only everyone’s government, but many other dictatorships out there.
And also, I don’t know if you guys remember that or not, but when I was playing for Boston Celtics, I went to a mosque and there’s actually videos out there. And when I get out of a mosque, the Erdogan supporters verbally attacked me and one of my teammates.
And I wanted to take a picture and video and show that to the whole world. Because sometimes whenever I speak, people think I’m exaggerating, and they think there’s nothing going to happen to me in America, I was like, you know what? Let me just take a video and post it so whole world can see it.
So his goons are everywhere in America and any other country. We are lucky to live in America, but many other countries, people are being kidnapped. Just recently, one of my friends just got kidnapped in Tajikistan and they sent him back to Turkey.
Now he’s going to become a political prisoner the rest of his life.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. You said we’re lucky to be living in the United States, but the question is that luck running out? Because we wanted to have you, we wanted to invite you to help us start today’s show because of growing concern amongst the FBI, and this better than anyone.
They call it transnational repression, that people living in the United States are no longer guaranteed total safety from actions by foreign governments. Now, let me also ask you something else, Enes, if I may. It sounds like you’re under, you have to have some additional kinds of security now.
Is that correct?
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So the threat is definitely real. You’ve also said that it’s not only the Turkish government, which has put you under threat, but you’re not currently in the NBA right now. And you say that’s because of comments that you’ve made about China. Tell me more about that.
FREEDOM: So it’s actually very crazy because once I started to talk about China, I sit down with some of the government officials, and they literally briefed me about which government can hurt me in what way. Because I don’t only talk about Turkey, I talk about the problems are happening in China, Russia, Iran, and many other dictatorships. So I remember sitting down and having a conversation with these government officials. They’re like, “Listen, going forward. Here’s some of the challenges you are going to face.”
The first topic, so they literally briefed me one by one, what government can hurt me, in what way. They said, the first one is China. They said, “Going forward, you will be getting text messages, DMs, tweets or random phone calls from one of the most beautiful girls in the world. Do not answer any of them. They are Chinese spies.”
And that messed me up so much. Now, every time I get a message, I don’t know if they are really like, that’s a message for myself or that they literally are out there to get me. The second one was Russia. They said, “They cannot do it in America, but when you go outside of America, like especially overseas somewhere, when you go to a restaurant, do not go to that restaurant again.”
I was like, “Why?” They said, “Because they can trick you, track you, and they can poison you.” They said, Iran, “Don’t play with woman … They will come and literally shoot you,” which they actually tried to one of my friends.” Her name is Masih. She’s pretty famous journalist. And the third one, fourth one was North Korea.
They said, “They will try to hack your phone if you ever talk about them.” So it’s been, I was just shocked to listen to all this, like stories and stuff, but I was like, you know what? The threat is real. And now I don’t know if you guys heard about it or not, but after all these like threats and death threats, especially coming from Turkey, I had a conversation with FBI. And when I was playing basketball, they had to come to my place and they set up this thing called panic button, they said, “Whenever you feel uncomfortable, push that button, we’ll be there in two, three minutes.”
There was a button right next to my bed and one in the living room. They said, “Whenever you feel uncomfortable, push that button. We’ll be there.” And it’s very crazy to me, because I live in the most freest country in the world America, but I had to live with a panic button right next to my back to feel safe.
And we got to do something about it. This is unacceptable.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. So just to give people a sense as to the kinds of comments, again, that we take for granted, that we can say in the United States, that have drawn this dangerous attention that you’re getting from these various governments. Regarding Erdogan, for example, in Turkey, you’ve gone so far as to call him the Hitler of the Turkish nation. In China, with your criticism of China, it’s actually been very public, right?
I think on your shoes, you’ve written, No Beijing 2022, Free Tibet, et cetera. Now the NBA, as has publicly said, they’ve never said that you shouldn’t communicate your political or personal feelings, and that they support your right to say these things, but you’re still critical of them.
FREEDOM: The reason is the NBA will only care about things until it hits their pocket. When there were all the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, NBA was the first organization, went out there and said, “We encourage every art player to go out there and protest.” But when China thing happened, they knew that they were going to lose a lot of sponsorships, TV deals, which they did. Because once I started to talk about the human rights violations in China, the Chinese government took out all the Boston Celtics game of television and that costed NBA millions of dollars.
So look at the numbers, more people watch NBA games in China than American population, and they cancel every Boston Celtics game. It’s huge, and forget the NBA. NBPA, the player’s association was calling me and say, “Do not wear those shoes ever again.” I was like, “Am I breaking rules?”
They said, “No, but you cannot wear them ever again.: So it was, I was very shocked. Because NBA, I thought NBA was standing with justice, with freedom. Democracy. It’s all a lie. Trust me, until it hits their pocket, they’re going to advocate whatever they believe in, but when it hits their pocket, they’re going to be silenced.
And they will silence anyone who goes against their agenda.
CHAKRABARTI: Enes Kanter Freedom, a celebrated center for the NBA until last year. Enes, thank you so much for joining us.
FREEDOM: Of course. Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Enes helped us kick off the story today because we are talking exactly about the growth in the kinds of things that he personally has been experiencing.
The FBI calls it transnational repression or foreign governments threatening the security, safety and even lives of people living in the United States.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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