Iran has seen a spike in suspected poisoning attacks at girls’ schools across the country in recent days, according to state and semi-official media, as medical staff and teachers accused government officials of trying to silence the victims.
Iran has seen a spate of suspected poisoning attacks since late November, almost entirely at girls’ schools. The hitherto unexplained illnesses have affected hundreds of schoolgirls, many of them hospitalized.
Saturday is considered the worst day yet, with incidents reported in dozens of schools. Video posted on social media showed schoolgirls being escorted to ambulances and using oxygen bottles at sites across the country. CNN was able to verify dozens of these new incidents using video and witness statements in 10 counties.
On Monday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called the suspected poisonings an “unforgivable crime” and called for “severe punishments” for anyone found responsible. According to Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, no one had been arrested in connection with the incidents as of Wednesday.
“This is a great and unforgivable crime. If it is proven that the students have been poisoned, the perpetrators of this crime should be severely punished. There will be no amnesty for these people,” Khamenei said on the sidelines of a tree-planting event in Tehran, according to the official news agency IRNA.
In the southeastern province of Khuzestan, the number of suspected poisonings reached nearly 700 patients on Sunday, according to ISNA, the vice president of Ahvaz University of Medical Science, Habib Haibar.
Many of the reports and videos posted on social media were shot on Saturday, the start of Iran’s five-day work and school week, which runs from Saturday to Wednesday.
In a statement released by state-affiliated news agency Tasnim on Saturday, Vahidi said “suspicious substances” had been identified in connection with the incidents.
“During field investigations by the relevant agencies, suspicious samples have been found, which are examined in laboratories to identify the causes of complications in students,” said Vahidi.
“The results will be announced by the Ministry of Health as soon as possible,” he added.
Vahidi also stressed that student health is the government’s top priority, Tasnim said.
Speculation is swirling among Iranian lawmakers as the spate of suspected attacks dominates headlines. On Friday, Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi blamed the incident on “enemies of Iran”, who he said aimed at fomenting unrest in the country.
“Recently, the enemies who have orchestrated and waged the media and psychological warfare in Iran are trying to weaken Iran’s security in the hope of creating an atmosphere of desperation by fomenting uncertainty and fear in Iranian society,” Raisi said in a statement. statement about the suspected poisoning attacks. .
Raisi did not directly specify who the “enemies” were, although Tehran usually accuses the United States and Israel of cracking down on them.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Friday criticized Western governments for “shedding crocodile tears” over the poisonings.
Both the US and the United Nations have called on Iranian authorities to fully investigate the suspected poisonings and hold those responsible accountable.
Meanwhile, parents of the victims have protested the poisoning incidents, in scenes reminiscent of the start of a nationwide uprising that erupted last September after the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman died after being detained by Iran’s “moral police” and taken to a “re-education center” allegedly for not following the country’s conservative dress code.
Security forces fired tear gas at demonstrations in the capital Tehran on Sunday. Video on social media showed security forces dispersing the protests.
CNN spoke to four medical sources who treated the students believed to have been poisoned, a teacher from a stricken school and four parents of the victims, all of whom said they were pressured not to talk about the matter.
A doctor who has treated several of the affected students told CNN he believed his phone was tapped. He and three other medical sources said hospital administrators had ordered them not to speak publicly about the issue in what they described as a government-orchestrated gag campaign.
On Sunday, videos posted on social media showed several schoolgirls receiving medical care at Yazd Hospital in central Iran.
“The private school was attacked by gas. All the kids have trouble breathing,” said the woman who filmed the video. “This is our country. They don’t even know what they’re doing.”