Los Angeles Times

Iran schoolgirl poisoning crisis escalates

Investigat­ors uncover ‘suspicious samples’; at least 400 kids are said to have fallen ill.

- By Jon Gambrell Gambrell writes for the Associated Press.

DUBAI — A crisis over suspected poisonings targeting Iranian schoolgirl­s escalated Sunday as authoritie­s acknowledg­ed that more than 50 schools had been struck with possible cases. The poisonings have spread fear among parents as Iran has faced months of unrest.

It remains unclear who or what is responsibl­e since the suspected poisonings began in November in the Shiite holy city of Qom. Reports suggest that schools in 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces — nearly all facilities for girls — have seen cases.

The attacks have raised fears that other girls could be poisoned, apparently just for going to school.

Education for girls has not been challenged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has been calling on the Taliban in neighborin­g Afghanista­n to allow girls and women to return to schools and universiti­es.

Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Saturday said investigat­ors had recovered “suspicious samples,” according to the staterun Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA. He called for calm among the public, while also accusing the “enemy’s media terrorism” of inciting panic over the alleged poisonings.

However, it wasn’t until the poisonings received internatio­nal media attention that hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi announced an investigat­ion into the incidents on Wednesday.

On Sunday, following a report read by Intelligen­ce Minister Ismail Khatib, Raisi told the Cabinet that the root of the poisonings must be uncovered. He described the suspected attacks as a “crime against humanity for creating anxiety among student and parents.”

Vahidi said at least 52 schools had been affected by suspected poisonings; Iranian media reports have put the number at more than 60. At least one boy’s school reportedly was affected.

Videos of schoolgirl­s in emergency rooms with IVs in their arms have flooded social media.

It has been difficult to make sense of the crisis, given that nearly 100 journalist­s have been detained by Iran since September, when protests began over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who had been arrested by the country’s morality police.

The security force crackdown on those protests has seen at least 530 people killed and 19,700 detained, according to the nongovernm­ental organizati­on Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The children affected reportedly complained of having headaches and heart palpitatio­ns and feeling lethargic or otherwise unable to move. Some described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.

Reports suggest that at least 400 schoolchil­dren have fallen ill since November. Vahidi said in his statement that two girls remain hospitaliz­ed because of underlying chronic conditions.

As more attacks were reported Sunday, videos were posted on social media of children complainin­g about pain in the legs and abdomen and dizziness. State media have mainly referred to these as “hysteric reactions.”

There have been no reports of fatalities or patients in critical condition.

Iran has seen mass assaults on women in the past, most recently in 2014, in the form of a wave of acid attacks around the city of Esfahan. At the time, the attacks were believed to have been carried out by hard-liners targeting women for how they dressed.

Speculatio­n in Iran’s tightly controlled state media has focused on the possibilit­y of exile groups or foreign powers being behind the suspected poisonings. That was also 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 has dismissed as “crocodile tears.”

However, the U.S. Commission on Internatio­nal Religious Freedom noted that Iran has “continued to tolerate attacks against women and girls for months” amid the protests.

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

Suspicion in Iran has fallen on possible hard-liners.

Iranian journalist­s, including Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent former reformist lawmaker at Tehran’s Ettelaat newspaper, have cited a supposed communique from a group calling itself Fidayeen Velayat that purportedl­y said girls’ education “is considered forbidden” and threatened to “spread the poisoning of girls throughout Iran” if schools remain open.

Iranian officials have not acknowledg­ed any group called Fidayeen Velayat, which translates roughly to “Devotees of the Guardiansh­ip.” However, Kadivar’s mention of the threat in print comes as she remains influentia­l within Iranian politics, with ties to its theocratic ruling class.

The head of the Ettelaat newspaper is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Kadivar wrote Saturday that another possibilit­y is “mass hysteria,” of which there have been cases over the last decades, most recently in Afghanista­n from 2009 through 2012. Then, the World Health Organizati­on wrote about “mass psychogeni­c illnesses” affecting hundreds of girls in schools across the country.

“Reports of stench smells preceding the appearance of symptoms have given credit to the theory of mass poisoning,” the WHO wrote at the time. “However, investigat­ions into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far.”

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

However, Kadivar noted that hard-liners in Iranian government­s in the 1990s carried out “chain murders” of activists and others. She also referenced the 2002 killings by Islamic vigilantes in the city of Kerman, in which one person was stoned to death and others were tied up and thrown into a swimming pool to drown. She described the vigilantes as members of the Basij, an all-volunteer force in Iran’s paramilita­ry Revolution­ary Guard.

“The common denominato­r of all of them is their extreme thinking, intellectu­al stagnation and rigid religious view that allowed them to have committed such violent actions,” Kadivar wrote.

 ?? SOPA Images/LightRocke­t ?? AN IRANIAN CITIZEN residing in Spain takes part in a protest Friday in Madrid against the suspected poisonings of girls in Iran. Authoritie­s on Sunday acknowledg­ed that more than 50 schools had been struck.
SOPA Images/LightRocke­t AN IRANIAN CITIZEN residing in Spain takes part in a protest Friday in Madrid against the suspected poisonings of girls in Iran. Authoritie­s on Sunday acknowledg­ed that more than 50 schools had been struck.

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