The photo is classic Enes Kanter.
The Thunder center is posed between what appears to be a pair of security guards in the Bucharest, Romania, airport. His smile is wide. His tongue is out. His hands make a pair of peace signs.
He posted that picture to his Twitter account Saturday, aiming for a laugh, even in a moment that was uncertain and potentially serious.
By early evening, Kanter was in London, hopeful for a swift return to the United States. But he’d had a memorable 25th birthday, beginning with an hours-long detainment at the Bucharest airport that he said was tied to his political views about his native Turkey.
“We’re safe and we’re good,” said Melvüt “Hilmi” Çilnar, Kanter’s manager and agent, via telephone from London on Saturday, refraining from offering any more details on the day until he and his client returned to the U.S.
Early Saturday, Kanter – who is on a global tour with his Enes Kanter Foundation – was detained in Romania when airport officials determined that his passport was invalid.
Kanter has a green card to work in the United States, said Hadis Fetic, his executive assistant. That gives Kanter Lawful Permanent Resident status in the U.S., but he’s a citizen of Turkey, where he grew up.
His only passport – the one invalidated on Saturday – is Turkish.
Çilnar was traveling with Kanter. His passport had not been invalidated, Fetic said.
A spokesman for the Romanian border police told The New York Times that Kanter “wasn’t detained or locked up” and was able to wander around the airport, but “he couldn’t enter the country.”
Kanter remained “in high spirits,” Fetic said, during his detainment, which lasted about four hours. He tweeted the picture with the officers detaining him, including the hashtag #FreeEnes.
But even as Kanter joked, there was an urgent undertone to the tagline. He posted a pair of videos to Twitter – one in English, one in Turkish – explaining the situation. In the English video, he explained his detainment and said “the reason behind it is of course my political views.”
Why did it happen?
Kanter has been an outspoken critic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has voiced his support for the Gulen Movement against the current Turkish government.
Fethullah Gulen is an Islamic leader who has been in exile in Pennsylvania for more than 15 years and is in direct opposition to Erdogan and his reign over Turkey. Erdogan’s regime blamed Gulen for an attempted coup on the Turkish government in July 2016.
The present regime has arrested “well over 100,000 people that it has accused of being affiliated with the coup” and with the Gulen movement, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
In August of 2016, Kanter was disowned by his family, which still lives in Turkey. The Daily Sabah, a newspaper cited as a “supportive voice” of Erdogan’s party, quoted Kanter’s father, Mehmet, as saying he disowned his son for his affiliation with the Gulen Movement.
In his video on Saturday, Kanter called Erdogan “a dictator” and “Hitler of our century” and said Erdogan was the reason his passport was invalidated.
In an email, Mahir Zeynalov, the editor of The Globe Post and an analyst of Turkish politics for The Huffington Post and other outlets, said the current government in Turkey “does not have tolerance to the slightest of dissent.”
As an example he cited Erdogan’s visit last week to Washington, D.C., during which members of his security team were involved in a violent clash with protesters outside the home of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S.
Zeynalov called that incident “a textbook example of what critical Turks are going through back in Turkey,” and said the canceling of critical citizens’ passports “a routine practice of the Turkish government.”
Landis, too, called the move typical of Middle Eastern governments. Erdogan is “terrified” of the Gulen movement, Landis said, and “to have somebody like Enes Kanter, this national hero and sports hero, not take a stand and condemn them is infuriating (for him).”
What happens next?
It was unclear as of Saturday night how or when Kanter would return to the United States.
Kanter and his representatives were in touch with his attorneys on Saturday and with the Thunder, which worked in conjunction with the NBA in the hope of returning Kanter to the U.S. quickly.
The office of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe reached out to Kanter around 9 a.m. via text, to which Kanter responded quickly, indicating he was OK, according to Brian Hackler, Sen. Inhofe’s state director. U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s office also made phone calls on Kanter’s behalf.
Though his green card permits him entry into the country, it is not a travel document, and he’d need one to return. There is a protocol for returning to the United States without a passport, but it’s unclear exactly what steps Kanter took.
A U.S. State Department official on Saturday said the department was “aware of reports” that an individual had been retained and released in Romania, but had “nothing further to offer.” The State Department referred further inquires to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which had not responded to an email from The Oklahoman on Saturday night.
Whatever the process, Kanter expected to be back in short order. Kanter posted to Twitter – and Çilnar confirmed in a phone call – that he planned to hold a news conference in New York City on Sunday.
In doing so, he was typically upbeat.
“Got lots of things to say with lots of crazy stories,” Kanter tweeted. “Be ready!!!”