Ministry Considers Turkey’s Request to Close Zaman Schools

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed on Monday that it was reviewing a diplomatic request from Turkey to close Zaman-operated schools in Phnom Penh because of their alleged ties to an organization being blamed for last month’s failed coup in the country.

Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug first called for the closure of Zaman University and Zaman International’s kindergarten, primary and secondary school campuses more than a month ago, arguing they were managed by the “terrorist organization” that plotted to overthrow Turkey’s government on July 15.

Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug, left, and Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn meet on Monday in Phnom Penh. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Kemal Tug, left, and Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn meet on Monday in Phnom Penh. (Khem Sovannara)

Zaman has been linked to Fethullah Gulen, a controversial cleric whose Hizmet movement has attracted millions of supporters, many within Turkey’s government. Authorities in Ankara hold the movement responsible for the attempted coup that resulted in nearly 300 deaths and thousands of arrests.

Zaman officials and Mr. Gulen have both condemned the coup. Zaman has denied any formal connection with Mr. Gulen, threatened legal action against the ambassador and launched a social media campaign to reassure parents that its schools will continue to operate as usual.

Speaking after a morning meeting between Mr. Tug and Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn in Phnom Penh, ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said that the ambassador had reiterated the Turkish government’s request that the schools be closed.

Mr. Sounry, who claimed last month that the ministry lacked the authority to close schools, said on Monday that it was reviewing the “important problem” of the school’s alleged terrorist ties.

“We have been reviewing and considering the request and we will cooperate with the related institutes of Cambodia,” Mr. Sounry said. “I can just say that it is an important problem.”

Mr. Sounry declined to answer questions on what criteria the ministry was using to make its decision and referred other questions to the Turkish Embassy.

Reached on Monday, the ambassador said that Turkey “is expecting the cooperation of the Cambodian government” in shutting down schools with links to Mr. Gulen, but declined to identify any Cambodian laws Zaman might have violated.

“I’m not the person to tell you this,” he said. Mr. Tug refused to answer further questions on Monday, saying “there’s no point in speaking with you on this topic right now.”

In an interview last month, however, Mr. Tug said that Zaman was a part of Mr. Gulen’s sprawling global “terrorist organization” that had been active in Cambodia since 1993.

Mr. Gulen, 75, resides in rural Pennsylvania in the U.S., which has refused repeated requests since the failed coup to return him to Turkey. He was once a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but their relations soured over a 2013 corruption investigation centering on Mr. Erdogan.

Since July, Turkey has fired or revoked the licenses of thousands of domestic educators and jailed civil servants, soldiers, journalists and others suspected of sympathizing with Mr. Gulen.

Zaman said in a statement last month that its links with Mr. Gulen were of a “motivational and inspirational nature.”

Zaman public relations director Hakan Atasever said on Monday that the Foreign Affairs Ministry had not contacted the school over the embassy’s allegations, but that it would cooperate with any investigation.

“We deny the link accused by the Ambassador,” he wrote in an email on Monday.

“We keep inviting Ambassador [Tug] to prove his allegations.”

Mr. Atasever reported no interruptions so far in the education of Zaman’s roughly 1,800 students in the capital.

“We trust the related Cambodian offices will act objective and fair while handling the issue, so we do not expect any disruption,” he said.,

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