March 29, 2023

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Iran announces arrests over schoolgirl poisonings – but provides few answers as mystery remains

Iranian authorities have announced the arrest of a number of people allegedly behind a spate of mysterious poisonings that has left thousands of schoolgirls sick in dozens of cities across the country.

The interior ministry has claimed that members of a four-person squad of anti-regime activists with ties to “foreign-based” media are behind the poisonings in an attempt to create “fear and horror” among Iranians.

It is one of a number of vague and contradictary statements by officials. Iran’s deputy interior minister Majid Mirahmadi said in a television interview on Tuesday that authorities had found “non-hostile” individuals involved in the attacks and that they were “offered guidance”. Critics have accused security services of ignoring religious extremists allegedly punishing girls for taking part in the nationwide protests sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini last year.

The poisonings have sparked outrage in Iran and abroad, putting pressure on the regime to act. They began in late November in the shrine city of Qom. At least 127 schools across 25 of the country’s 31 provinces have reported incidents.

On Tuesday, teachers and university students in a number of cities and campuses protested in support of the students, prompting violent police intervention and arrests.

The UN’s human rights council has already authorised an investigation into violence and suppression by the regime against the wider protest movement, which were sparked by opposition to mandatory Islamic headscarves.

“I am deeply concerned about the reported poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran over the past three months. This is a violation of their right to safe education,” the head of the UN’s cultural agency, Audrey Azoulay said.

“We are closely following this deeply concerning situation that we are seeing in Iran,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, spokesman for the US State Department said on Tuesday. “The continued poisoning of schoolgirls across Iran is unconscionable. There must be a credible, independent investigation and accountability.”

“If these poisonings are related to participation in protests, then it is well within the mandate of the UN’s independent fact-finding mission on Iran to investigate,” Ms Jean-Pierre added.

On Monday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei broached the topic for the first time, urging authorities to aggressively pursue the suspects. “A crime of this magnitude is unforgivable,” he said in a speech. “The perpetrators should be severely punished. These people will not receive amnesty.“

Iran’s claims of arrests followed the speech. Officials have not publicised the names of any suspects, specified the exact number of those detained nor broadcast images of alleged perpetrators as they often do when detaining or arresting political opponents or criminal suspects.

Police officials on Tuesday said people were also arrested for throwing “nitrogen gas” into seven schools in southern Iran. But nitrogen gas and mostly harmless is odourless whereas poisoned students have described a distinctive smell.

The government had been silent about the poisonings for months, before relentless public pressure, including local campaigns by parents of schoolgirls, prompted a response that appeared designed to both mollify parents and shift responsibility.

Last week, Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi and other top officials alleged the country’s foreign “enemies” had carried out the attacks as part of an attempt to weaken the regime.

Officials also blamed international and local media outlets for exaggerating the crisis. At least one journalist was arrested and three outlets have been punished for publishing “fake news” about the poisonings.

Before Mr Khamenei’s speech, senior health ministry officials had dismissed a number of the poisonings as cases of mass hysteria. The alleged serial poisonings bear the hallmarks of other misogynistic attacks. In 2014, Islamic extremists fanatically loyal to the regime targeted women with acid attacks. In the late 1990s, groups of hardiners were behind a wave of gruesome killings targeting dissidents and intellectuals.

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