NBA player Enes Freedom out to corner UN rights chief on China
Long-time NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom, whose advocacy on Xinjiang and Tibet has ruffled feathers, hopes to bend UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s ear on Thursday about her forthcoming China visit.
Kanter Freedom has emerged as one of China’s most vocal critics in the sporting world: a rare athlete willing to forgo lucrative endorsements to speak on issues such as Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim and Tibetan minorities.
And at an event they are both due to attend in Geneva, he hopes to spur Bachelet into “solid action” on China rather than mere condemnation.
“I am really hopeful for that meeting,” he told AFP.
“We need change, and change cannot wait any more. We need to take immediate action. What she represents is to bring awareness but what I want to tell her is, don’t just talk about it: be about it.
“Take some solid actions because condemning is good, it brings awareness, but it doesn’t change anything.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is set to make a long-delayed visit to China in May, including to Xinjiang, where Western lawmakers have accused Beijing of genocide against the Uyghurs — allegations vigorously denied by China.
“We don’t have time to wait. People are dying and getting killed, so she definitely needs to push whoever she needs to push,” said Kanter Freedom.
Money versus morals
He was raised in Turkey and played for the national team but criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over rights issues and had his passport revoked by the Turkish government in 2017.
For several years afterwards, Kanter said he feared for his life and refused to leave North America.
The former Boston Celtics centre, who made his NBA debut in 2011 with the Utah Jazz, became a US citizen last November and added Freedom to his name to celebrate his new nationality.
He will be presented Wednesday with the 2022 Courage Award at the 14th annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, organized by rights NGOs, for “risking his career” to speak out on the Uyghurs.
China is by far the NBA’s largest overseas market but in October last year Chinese streaming service Tencent stopped showing Celtics games after Kanter Freedom branded President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.”
Kanter Freedom said that athletes nowadays have a huge platform due to their social media reach, and urged them to use it to raise issues that transcend sport — even if it risked sponsorship deal opportunities.
He called for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and while pleased with the diplomatic snub from some countries, he said athletes should also have taken a stand.
“They have picked money and business over morals, principles and values. So shame on all these athletes who attended,” he said.
Kanter Freedom said China was closely watching the world’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and called for tougher sanctions on Moscow to deter Beijing from invading Taiwan.
“We don’t want another Ukraine to happen to Taiwan,” he said.
Traded, then released
NBA basketball only returned to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV for the first time in nearly 18 months last week, after China blacklisted it after a Houston Rockets official voiced support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Kanter Freedom feels he is paying a price for his advocacy.
The Celtics traded him in February to the Rockets — who immediately released him, leaving him looking for a new NBA team.
“I averaged double-double last year and people know I can still go out there and play,” he said, citing his statistics.
“I’m 29 and I plan to play another six or seven years in the league because my body feels healthy and I love basketball.
“I do believe that yes, they are punishing me in a way, and making sure every other athlete sees what I am going through so they won’t talk about the issues that are happening in China.”
But he added: “I don’t regret anything that I have done. If I could go back in time, I would do it even louder.”
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