Turkey passes law to shut schools run by Erdogan arch-rival

ANKARA (AFP) - Turkey's parliament has passed a bill to close down thousands of private schools, many of which are run by an influential Muslim cleric embroiled in a bitter feud with the government.

In a late-night session on Friday, lawmakers in the 550-seat house voted 226 for and 22 against the bill which sets September 1, 2015 as the deadline to shut down the network of schools.

The row between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his former ally, cleric Fethullah Gulen, erupted in November when government first floated the idea of shutting down the schools, a major source of income for Gulen's Hizmet movement.

In December, a corruption scandal erupted in which dozens of Erdogan's allies were detained in police raids on allegations of bribery in construction projects, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran.

Erdogan accused so-called Gulenists implanted in Turkey's police and judiciary of being behind the graft probe in a bid to undermine his government.

He retaliated by sacking hundreds of police and prosecutors believed to be linked to the movement run by Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

The corruption crisis, which dragged down four ministers and prompted a cabinet shake-up, has rattled the feathers of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government ahead of a highly-charged election year beginning with key local polls in March.

Government has also accused Gulenists of wiretapping thousands of influential people - including the prime minister, the spy chief and journalists.

The schools law comes on the heels of several other measures driven by Erdogan's government, which has pushed through legislation tightening state control over the Internet and the judiciary, generating criticism at home and abroad and raising questions about the state of democracy in Turkey.

Gulen, who has been living in the United States since 1999 to escape charges of plotting against the secular state by the then-government, has denied any involvement in the corruption probe.

Gulen's Hizmet (Service) movement - which describes itself as a global, social and cultural movement inspired by Islamic ideals - is active in education with around 4,000 private schools in Turkey as well as more than 500 around the world.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.