The Washington Post

Apparent poisonings in Iran send dozens of schoolgirl­s to hospital


Dozens of students in Iran were hospitaliz­ed for suspected poisoning this week, the latest developmen­t in cases that primarily appear to target girls’ schools across the country.

Emergency services in Pardis, on the outskirts of Tehran, transferre­d 37 schoolgirl­s for treatment on Tuesday, a school official told Iran’s semioffici­al Tasnim news agency. He said the students had “mild poisoning” and added that all are expected to recover.

Separately the same day, the activist-run Human Rights Activists News Agency reported that several other female students fell ill in Qom, south of the capital, where many of the suspected poisonings have occurred.

Such incidents have been reported in 10 to 15 cities across Iran in recent months, Abdulali Rahimi Mozafari, a member of Iran’s parliament, said Tuesday, according to the Entekhab news website. The number of affected students across the country is unclear, but Zahra Sheikhi, a spokeswoma­n for Iran’s Health Commission, said Wednesday that 800 students had suffered “mild poisoning” in Qom alone in recent months, the reformist newspaper Shargh reported.

While some boys also appear to have fallen ill, Iranian media report that the vast majority of cases have been at girls’ schools. No deaths have been reported.

Videos posted on social media Wednesday showed family members protesting outside some of the affected schools in Tehran; in one video, a member of Iran’s security forces can be seen pulling a woman’s hair. Another video shows girls chanting “death to the child-killing government.”

“The deliberate poisoning of schoolgirl­s in Iran is exposing the fanatical, lawless and violent mentality that is resurfacin­g under this unaccounta­ble government, [which is] trying to force the entire country, especially women, backward,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Iran’s health minister, Bahram Einollahi, visited Qom on Tuesday, saying that the poison was “very mild” and that the students’ symptoms included muscle weakness, lethargy and nausea, the Iranian Students’ News Agency reported. According to the Associated Press, some of the children described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents. Sheikhi, the Health Commission spokeswoma­n, said the poison appeared to have been inhaled.

Alireza Monadi, the head of the parliament’s education committee, said Wednesday that Ministry of Health tests had detected nitrogen gas in the poison spread at schools in Qom, according to the Hamshahri newspaper.

The reason for the poisonings remains unknown. Last week, Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri ordered an investigat­ion and said the spate of poisonings “indicates the possibilit­y of intentiona­l criminal actions.”

On Sunday, Iranian news outlets quoted Younes Panahi, a deputy health minister, as saying that schools were targeted deliberate­ly. He told journalist­s that the culprits “wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed,” according to Iran’s Ettelaat newspaper. He later denied making the comments, saying he could not confirm whether the poisonings were intentiona­l or why they had occurred.

Alireza Monadi, another member of the Iranian parliament who serves on the education committee, also said Sunday, without providing evidence, that an “evil will and thought” behind the attacks sought “to prevent the children of this land, especially girls, from education is a significan­t danger and is considered very bad news.”

While education in Iran is compulsory only for children ages 6 to 11, Iran’s government has a strong focus on education, with women accounting for more than 50 percent of Iran’s university students, according to the World Bank. Tehran has repeatedly pressed the Taliban in neighborin­g Afghanista­n to overturn its ban on girls’ education.

Families of the students affected in Qom, an important site of Shiite Muslim shrines and scholarshi­p, demonstrat­ed recently to demand that authoritie­s take action, Hamshahri reported.

The country has been gripped by months of protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly in public. The demonstrat­ions started over women’s dress, but they morphed into rallies against the country’s theocratic state and united people across age, gender, ethnicity and class lines. It’s not clear at this point whether the suspected poisonings are linked to this activism.

Students have played a key role in the protests, and more than 700 of them have been arrested, according to the Volunteer Committee to Follow Up on the Situation of Detainees.

Authoritie­s have responded brutally, with HRANA, the activist news agency, reporting that at least 530 demonstrat­ors have been killed since the unrest began in mid-september. At least four protesters have been executed; others have received death sentences.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States