By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Leading Turkish journalist Can Dundar, sentenced to six years for publishing state secrets involving Ankara's Syria operations, says he is planning to stay abroad, fearing new charges intended to link him to an abortive military coup.
Dundar, who quit as editor-in-chief of the secularist Cumhuriyet daily, said in a telephone interview a case was being readied against him for "aiding and abetting" a religious movement led by a U.S.-based Muslim cleric that Turkey accuses of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt. Some 340 people were killed in the action that collapsed in less than 24 hours.
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Prosecutors were not immediately available for comment. Dundar, who had left the country before the coup in July on holiday, declined to say where he now is.
Dundar and Cumhuriyet bureau chief Erdem Gul spent three months in jail during their trial on spy charges for publishing footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency taking weapons into Syria in 2014. They were found guilty of a lesser crime of revealing secrets in May and are free pending appeal.
The convictions sparked censure from rights groups and Western governments worried about worsening human rights in Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan.
"There is a good chance I will be detained and little chance I'll get out because no higher court can protect our rights," said Dundar. "My choice is prison or staying abroad. Under these conditions, I could no longer manage the newspaper."
Under a state of emergency imposed after the coup, Turkey has sacked or suspended some 80,000 people in the army, police, judiciary and civil service for suspected links to the preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen, whose followers helped Erdogan in his early years in power by taking up specialist posts in key ministries and security, denies any role in the coup in which rogue troops seized jets and tanks to attack government targets in a spasm of violence that shocked the nation.
Following the post-coup shakeup, the government now exerts near-full control over the judiciary, said Dundar, sapping his faith in a fair appeal and trial.
Western allies fear the clampdown could stifle dissent and harm stability in the NATO partner that has also been shaken by bomb attacks b Kurdish and Islamic State militants. Over 50 were killed in an apparent suicide bombing in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian frontier, on Saturday night.
Turkey says the measures are necessary to expose 75-year-old Gulen's followers whom it describes as a "terrorist parallel structure" that spent four decades infiltrating the state.
Turkish authorities are pressing the United States to extradite Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, presiding over a global network of schools and businesses.
Erdogan said the trucks Cumhuriyet reported on in 2015 carried humanitarian aid to forces battling the Syrian regime and were intercepted in an unauthorized operation by Gulen's followers in the gendarmes in an act of treason.
Cumhuriyet's story undermined NATO ally Turkey's standing, Erdogan said and vowed Dundar would "pay a heavy price".
The Committee to Protect Journalists last month awarded Dundar its International Press Freedom award, citing Cumhuriyet's coverage of the alleged weapons smuggling.
Dundar, who is also a well-known filmmaker and author, will continue to pen a column for Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey's oldest newspapers. He stepped down as its editor last week.
"I will be prosecuted for helping, with our coverage, the organization accused of the coup," said Dundar, who denies links with Gulen's network.
Dundar sees irony in accusations he has helped a religious organization, coming as he does from a secularist political culture that has opposed Islamist movements.
"I was the editor of a paper that spent years warning against (Gulen's) organization.
"The government was its partner and is solely responsible for the expanse it reached ... but there's an attempt to make us culpable for their crimes," he said.
Erdogan this month apologized for his previous alliance with Gulen, saying he had failed to see his "true face".
The post-coup crackdown has extended to the press, with 70 media workers detained. Turkey is now the world's top jailer of journalists, the European Federation of Journalists says.
In total, police have detained 40,000 people since July 15.
"This massive detention campaign amounts to a witch hunt ... to clean up the opposition," said Dundar. "Publications that refuse to acquiesce to the government are all at risk."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)