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Iran schoolgirls targeted by more poison attacks, sparking protests

People gather for a protest to support the Iranian resistance movement, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023 in Brussels. (Eric Lalmand/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

A fresh spate of suspected poisoning attacks on schoolgirls in Iran was reported Wednesday as officials sought to play down the incidents that have sparked outrage and led to dozens of hospitalizations since November.

Scores of schools were targeted in several cities in Iran. Some 343 students were taken to hospital in the western city of Ardabil where 11 schools reported suspected poison attacks, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported citing a local official.

Seven schoolgirls were admitted after falling sick in Esfahan, Mehr said, adding that 12 others had fallen sick in the city of Qom and more cases had been reported in the western city of Kermanshah.

Girls schools in at least three districts of the capital Tehran reported students feeling sick or being sent to hospital after smelling and inhaling a gaseous substance, the leading reformist Shargh newspaper said.

A number of videos shared on Twitter purported to show protests outside several schools since yesterday. In some of them chants of “death to the dictator” and “death to the child-killing regime” can be heard.

One video, shared by the Prague-based Radio Free Europe showed plainclothes security officials aggressively pushing a woman — purportedly the mother of a poisoned school girl in the Tehran suburb of Tehransar — and repeatedly yanking her head by her hair.

Others showed students in hospital where they can be heard complaining of not being able to breathe. None of the footage can be verified by Bloomberg.

On Sunday, deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi confirmed that a spate of deliberate poisonings using “chemical compounds” had been reported at a number of schools in different cities since November.

Contradicting Panahi’s statement, Iran’s interior minister downplayed the attacks on Wednesday and denied an earlier report by the hardline, semi-official Fars news agency that three people had been arrested in connection with the poisonings.

Ahmad Vahidi said that more than three months after the first reported attack, an investigation had only just started and said that so far he’d no received no reports of any toxic substances at the schools. He blamed Iran’s “enemies” and “mercenary media” for stirring panic among the public.

Vahidi also claimed “more than 90%” of the sicknesses were induced by stress rather than any noxious substances, without giving any details. Vahidi is a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful wing of Iran’s military.

The attacks have coincided with the biggest popular uprising against the Islamic Republic’s leadership since it was founded after the 1979 revolution. The protests were triggered in September by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested for allegedly flouting Islamic dress codes for women.

Women and girls have played a central role in the demonstrations and many have staged classroom protests rebuking the male clerics that run the country. Several teenage girls have been beaten to death by security forces, according to the United Nations.

Iran has been sanctioned and strongly admonished by the European Union, U.N., U.K. and U.S. for its use of deadly force and executions to crush the protests. Rights groups say more than 500 people have been killed by security forces, including scores of children.

While attacks on women’s education are unusual in Iran, women and girls have been targeted by Islamist fundamentalist groups linked to the state’s religious “Basij” militia and other extremist groups in the past.

In 2014 several women in the city of Isfahan were permanently disfigured after being attacked with acid by men on motorcycles for how they were dressed. Newspapers at the time blamed Islamist groups, but no one was ever charged or sentenced for the crimes.


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