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Home World News Washington Post World News Crisis over alleged poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran escalates

Crisis over alleged poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran escalates



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A crisis over suspected poisonings targeting Iranian schoolgirls escalated Sunday as authorities acknowledged more than 50 schools were hit in a spate of possible cases. The poisonings have further frightened the parents as Iran has already seen 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 nearly all incidents occurring in girls’ schools.

The attacks have raised fears that other girls could be poisoned, apparently just for going to school. Girls’ education has never been challenged in the more than 40 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has called on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to allow girls and women to return to school and universities.

Without elaborating further, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on Saturday that investigators recovered “suspicious samples” while investigating the incidents, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. He called for calm among the public, while also accusing the “enemy’s media terrorism” of inciting more panic over the alleged poisonings.

It was not until the poisonings received international media attention that hardline President Ebrahim Raisi announced an investigation into the incidents on Wednesday.

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

Videos of upset parents and schoolgirls in the emergency room with IVs in their arms have flooded social media. Understanding the crisis remains a challenge, as 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 squad and later died.

At least 530 people have been killed and 19,700 others detained in Iran’s crackdown on those protests, according to human rights activists.

The children affected by the poisonings reportedly complained of headaches, palpitations, a feeling of lethargy, or otherwise being unable to move. Some described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning products.

Reports suggest that 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 conditions.

As more attacks were reported on Sunday, videos were posted to social media showing children complaining of leg pain, stomach pain and dizziness. State media called this mainly ‘hysterical reactions’.

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

Attacks against women have occurred in Iran in the past, most recently with a spate of acid attacks in 2014 around the city of Isfahan, believed to have been carried out at the time by hardliners who targeted women for their clothing.

Speculation in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibility that exile groups or foreign powers are behind the poisonings. That was also alleged repeatedly 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 that Iran’s foreign ministry has dismissed as “crocodile tears.”

However, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that Iran “continues to tolerate attacks against women and girls for months” during the recent protests.

“These poisonings are taking place in an environment where Iranian officials have impunity for the intimidation, sexual assault, rape, torture and execution of women who peacefully defend their freedom of religion or belief,” the commission’s Sharon Kleinbaum said in a statement.

Suspicion in Iran has fallen on possible hardliners for carrying out the suspected poisonings. Iranian journalists, including Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent former reformist legislator at Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, have cited an alleged communiqué from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat, which reportedly said that girls’ education is “considered forbidden” and threatened ” to spread the poisoning of girls”. all over Iran” if girls’ schools remain open.

Iranian officials have not recognized any group by the name of Fidayeen Velayat, which roughly translates into English as “Devotees of the Guardianship”. However, Kadivar’s mention of the threat is in print because she remains influential in Iranian politics and has ties to the 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 decades, most recently in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012. Subsequently, the World Health Organization wrote about so-called “mass psychogenic illnesses” affecting hundreds of girls in schools across the country.

“Reports of stench prior to the onset of symptoms have corroborated the theory of mass poisoning,” the WHO wrote at the time. “However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have so far produced no such evidence.”

Iran has not acknowledged asking the World Health Organization for help with its investigation. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

However, Kadivar also noted that hardliners in Iranian governments have historically committed so-called “chain killings” of activists and others in the 1990s. She also referred to the 2002 killings by Islamic vigilantes in the town of Kerman, in which one victim was stoned to death and others were tied and thrown into a swimming pool, where they drowned. She described those 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 mindset, intellectual stagnation and rigid religious views that enabled them to commit such violent acts,” Kadivar wrote.

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