By Ece Toksabay and Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court issued an arrest warrant on Friday for U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen whose followers are accused by President Tayyip Erdogan of leading a terrorist plot to seize power, according to media.
The warrant takes Erdogan's campaign to root out Gulen supporters, including purges of the judiciary and police, to the international arena potentially testing strained relations with Washington. Newspapers said a prosecutor, filing for the warrant, accused him of leading a terrorist gang.
Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. He was a close ally of Erdogan in the early years after his ruling AK Party took power in 2002 but has been in open conflict with him since a graft investigation emerged a year ago targeting the then-prime minister's inner circle.
Erdogan portrays the investigation as part of a coup attempt and describes Gulen's followers as traitors and terrorists - all charges that Gulen, who runs a vast network of schools and business enterprises in Turkey and abroad, denies.
Officials at Gulen's headquarters in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, a complex set in woodland, were not immediately available for comment. But Alp Aslandogan, a New York-based Turkish academic and close associate of Gulen, described the accusations against him as ludicrous.
“It’s not a surprise except in the sense of how low the Erdogan regime will go for the sake of absolute power and intimidation,” Aslandogan said.
Courts have dropped the corruption cases, critics at home and in the West citing that as evidence Erdogan is stripping the judiciary of its independence.
In his request for a warrant, the prosecutor accused Gulen of heading a criminal gang. The charges include operating an armed terror group, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, media including Aksam newspaper said.
"These days it is very easy to be called a traitor," said Abdulhamit Bilici of Zaman, a newspaper close to Gulen's movement.
Ankara can now apply to Washington for Gulen's extradition, with no guarantee of success. Erdogan's image in the West, once that of a moderate reformer, has been eroded as his open intolerance of opposition and of criticism has grown.
A court remanded Hidayet Karaca, who heads Samanyolu Television which is close to Gulen, and three other people in custody on accusations of belonging to a terrorist group.
The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, said last weekend's police raids on media workers violated European values. Erdogan told the bloc to mind its own business.
(Writing by Daren Butler; additional reporting by Alistair Bell in Washington; editing by Nick Tattersall, Ralph Boulton)