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Crisis over alleged poisoning of Iranian schoolgirls escalates


Dubai, United Arab Emirates — A crisis over suspected poisonings targeting Iranian schoolgirls escalated on Sunday as authorities acknowledged more than 50 schools had been hit in a surge of possible cases. The poisonings have struck fear among parents as Iran has faced months of unrest.

It remains unclear who or what is responsible since the alleged poisonings began in November in the Shia holy city of Qom. Reports now suggest that schools in 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces have seen suspected cases, with girls’ schools being the site of almost all of the incidents.

The attacks have raised fears that other girls may be poisoned, apparently simply for going to school. Girls’ education has never been in question for more than 40 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has called on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to allow girls and women back to school and at university.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Saturday, without giving further details, that investigators had recovered “suspicious samples” during their investigations into the incidents, according to state news agency IRNA. He called for calm among the public, while blaming “enemy media terrorism” for inciting more panic over the alleged poisonings.

However, it was not until the poisonings attracted international media attention that hardline President Ebrahim Raisi announced an investigation into the incidents on Wednesday.

On Sunday, Raisi told cabinet, following a report read by Intelligence Minister Ismail Khatib, that the root of the poisonings needed to be discovered and confronted. He described the alleged attacks as a “crime against humanity for creating anxiety among students and parents”.

Vahidi said at least 52 schools have been affected by suspected poisonings. Iranian media put the number of schools at more than 60. At least one boys’ school was reportedly affected.

Videos of upset parents and schoolgirls in emergency rooms with IVs in their arms flooded social media. Making sense of the crisis remains difficult, given that nearly 100 journalists have been detained by Iran since protests began in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She had been detained by the country’s vice police and later died.

The security forces’ crackdown on the protests left at least 530 dead and another 19,700 detained, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran.

Children affected by the poisonings reportedly complained of headaches, heart palpitations, feeling lethargic or otherwise unable to move. Some described fragrant tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.

Reports suggest at least 400 schoolchildren have fallen ill since November. Vahidi, the interior minister, said in his statement that two girls remain in hospital due to underlying chronic illnesses.

As more attacks were reported on Sunday, videos emerged on social media showing children complaining of pain in their legs, abdomen and dizziness. State media mainly characterized them as “hysterical reactions”.

Since the outbreak, no one has been reported in critical condition and no deaths have been reported.

Attacks on women have occurred in Iran in the past, most recently with a spate of acid attacks in 2014 around the city of Isfahan, at the time allegedly carried out by supporters of the line harsh targeting women for their attire.

Speculation in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibility that exile groups or foreign powers were behind the poisonings. This has also been repeatedly alleged during the recent protests without evidence. In recent days, Germany’s foreign minister, a White House official and others have called on Iran to do more to protect schoolgirls – a concern Iran’s foreign ministry called “crocodile tears.” “.

However, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that Iran has “continued to condone attacks on women and girls for months” amid recent protests.

“These poisonings are occurring in an environment where Iranian officials enjoy impunity for the harassment, assault, rape, torture and execution of women peacefully asserting their freedom of religion or belief,” Sharon said. Kleinbaum of the commission in a statement.

Suspicion in Iran has fallen on possible hardliners for carrying out the alleged poisonings. Iranian journalists, including Jamileh Kadivar, a former prominent reformist lawmaker at Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, quoted an alleged statement from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat that said girls’ education ‘is considered prohibited’. and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls”. across Iran” if girls’ schools remain open.

Iranian officials have not recognized any group called Fidayeen Velayat, which roughly translates into English as “Devotees of the Guardianship”. However, Kadivar’s mention of the threat in the press comes as she remains influential within Iranian politics and has ties to its theocratic ruling class. The head of the Ettelaat newspaper is also appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Kadivar wrote on Saturday that another possibility is “mass hysteria”. There have been previous cases of this over the past few decades, most recently in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012. Then the World Health Organization wrote about so-called “mass psychogenic illnesses” affecting hundreds girls in schools across the country.

“Reports of foul odors preceding the onset of symptoms gave credence to the mass poisoning theory,” the WHO wrote at the time. “However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have so far yielded no such evidence.”

Iran has not admitted to asking the world health body for help in its investigation. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

However, Kadivar also noted that extremists in Iranian governments in the past carried out so-called “chain murders” of activists and others in the 1990s. She also referred to vigilante killings in 2002 in the city of Kerman, when one victim was stoned to death and others were tied up and thrown into a swimming pool, where they drowned. She described these vigilantes as members of the Basij, an all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards.

“The common denominator of all of them is their extreme thinking, intellectual stagnation and rigid religious outlook that enabled them to commit such violent actions,” Kadivar wrote.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.