By Idrees Ali and David Rohde
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned on Thursday that he will continue to sue critics who insult him in Turkey, where journalists and other critics of the president have been imprisoned.
He issued the admonition in Washington, a day before a hearing in Istanbul resumes in the trial of two high-profile Turkish journalists.
"I would (thank) each and everyone one of those who criticize me but if they were to insult me, my lawyers will go and file a lawsuit," said Erdogan, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.
A Turkish court on Friday resumes hearings in the trial of the two journalists for publishing footage that purportedly showed Turkey’s intelligence agency shipping truckloads of weapons to opposition fighters in Syria in early 2014.
As protesters chanted and waved banners outside, Turkish security personnel tried to block three Turkish journalists from covering the event, held at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Adem Yavuz Arslan, a reporter with Ozgur Dusunce, a Turkish opposition newspaper affiliated with U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, said the security guards threatened him.
"They said, 'We are going to kill you. You are a terrorist,'" said Arslan.
A prosecutor has charged Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the newspaper's Ankara bureau chief, with trying to topple the government by publishing video purporting to show Turkey's state intelligence agency helping to truck weapons to Syria in 2014.
Erdogan, whose government has come under international criticism for restrictions of press freedom, has vowed Dundar will "pay a heavy price". The two journalists could face life in prison if convicted.
In his speech in Washington, Erdogan said there were no journalists in jail because of their work, adding that most of the 52 journalists in Turkish prisons have been convicted on or face terrorism charges. Journalism rights groups say the government uses vague terrorism charges to silence journalists.
Since becoming president in August 2014, Erdogan has filed a record 1,845 court cases against individuals for insulting him, resulting in a more than a dozen sentences, activists have said. Insulting the president carries a maximum of four years in prison in Turkey.
The New York-based advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists describes Turkey as a “country of concern” with at least 13 and as many 20 journalists in prison for their work.
Erdogan also said the West needed to take more responsibility in dealing with Syrian refugees, accusing it of failing its commitments under international human rights accords.
“Even though almost all EU nations are wealthier than us, they have taken a (handful) of Syrian refugees while we have opened our doors," he said.
Turkey agreed with the EU this month to take back all migrants and refugees who cross illegally to Greece in exchange for financial aid, faster visa-free travel for Turks and slightly accelerated EU membership talks.
The returns are supposed to begin on April 4 under the plan, which aims to close the main route by which a million migrants and refugees poured across the Aegean Sea to Greece in the last year before heading north mainly to Germany and Sweden.
Erdogan also said he expected a meeting of Turkish and Israeli officials next month to yield positive results, after the sides collaborated closely following a bomb attack in Istanbul that killed Israeli tourists.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Don Durfee and David Gregorio)