Hundreds of Schoolgirls Fall Sick in Iran, and Officials Suspect Poisoning

Hundreds of schoolgirls in Iran have been hospitalized in over 10 cities after falling sick with respiratory, cardiac and neurological symptoms, and senior officials said they might have been deliberately poisoned.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said at a news conference on Wednesday that the motive behind what some officials called school attacks remained unclear and that no arrests had been made. But the government held an emergency meeting on Wednesday with officials from the health and education ministries, he said, and teams from the Intelligence Ministry and security forces began an investigation.

“The topic of the poisoning of our dear ones was discussed,” Mr. Vahidi said, according to a video of his comments carried by state news media. He attributed some of the girls’ symptoms to stress and anxiety and blamed Iran’s enemies and foreign news outlets for causing public alarm.

The first reports of girls’ falling sick emerged three months ago in the religious city of Qom, which is about 80 miles southwest of the capital, Tehran. Students reported smelling mysterious odors like tangerine and chlorides and were hospitalized after having difficulty breathing and experiencing heart palpitations, nausea and numbness in their limbs.

By Wednesday, the number of students affected had risen to more than 800.

Alireza Monadi, a lawmaker and the head of Parliament’s education committee, said on Tuesday that the schools had been deliberately attacked and that 30 toxicologists in the Health Ministry had identified the toxins found in schools as nitrogen gas.

Mr. Monadi and the deputy health minister, Younes Panahi, said the motive appeared to be to prevent girls from attending schools, raising alarm about the possible infiltration of Islamic extremist groups.

“Poisoning female students intentionally is very bad news,” Mr. Monadi said, according to official news reports in Iran. “The fact that a group of people wanted to prohibit young girls from attending school is alarming. We have to find the roots of it.”

The suspected poisonings have rattled Iranians because girls’ education under the Islamic Republic has not been contested or challenged for the past four decades. Women make up a majority of Iran’s university students and nearly half of the work force, and they have a robust presence in civil society, where they work for greater rights despite arrests and intimidations.

Women and girls have also led the recent protests demanding an end to the Islamic Republic, removing their mandatory hijabs, tearing the pictures of officials and chanting, “Death to the dictator.”

Rights activists said the cause of the students’ sudden illnesses could include punishment for civil disobedience, the prevention of education or sowing fear.

“These appear to be serious coordinated attacks to create fear among the girls and their families in the context of girls’ partaking in the protests and being penalized for it,” said Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It is adding to the collective trauma and anxiety in Iran.”

The reports of hundreds of students falling sick across Iran have surged in the past few days, according to local news reports, officials and rights activists. The union representing teachers in Iran said on Wednesday that 26 schools had been targeted, including at least one elementary school, with students showing symptoms of toxic poisoning.

Sahred From Source link World News

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