Protests Erupt Across Iran Over Schoolchildren Poisonings


Worried parents and others gathered Saturday in Tehran and other cities to protest a recent series of illnesses that have sickened hundreds of schoolchildren, particularly girls, as a new wave of illness struck.

The cause of the illnesses has not been determined. Iranian officials say the girls might have been poisoned and have blamed Tehran's enemies.

The country's health minister said the girls experienced "mild poison" symptoms. Some politicians suspect hardline Islamist groups opposed to girls' education are involved.

Iran's interior minister said Saturday that investigators found "suspicious samples" and are analyzing them.

"In field studies, suspicious samples have been found, which are being investigated ... to identify the causes of the students' illness, and the results will be published as soon as possible," Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, said in a statement carried by the official news agency IRNA.

On Saturday, schoolgirls at more than 30 schools in at least 10 of Iran's 31 provinces were affected by a new wave of illnesses, Reuters reported. Social media videos showed parents taking their children home from school.

Dozens of students were sickened to the extent they needed to be hospitalized. Symptoms include feeling lethargic or unable to move, to headaches and heart palpitations. Some have described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.

A group of parents gathered Saturday outside an Education Ministry building in western Tehran to protest the handling of the illnesses and it turned into an anti-government demonstration, according to a video verified by Reuters.

"Basij, Guards, you are our Daesh," protesters shouted, comparing the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces to the Islamic State group.

Similar protests were held in two other areas in Tehran, along with other cities including Isfahan and Rasht, according to unverified videos.

Leaders blame 'enemies'

The outbreak of the schoolgirl poisoning comes at a crucial time for Iran's clerical rulers, who have faced months of anti-government protests sparked by the death last September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in morality police custody. She had been arrested days earlier for allegedly violating Iran's strict Islamic dress code by improperly wearing her hijab.

Hundreds of protesters, and some security personnel, have been killed in street demonstrations targeting the government’s treatment of Amini.

Social media posts in recent days have shown photos and videos of girls who have fallen ill, felt nauseated, or suffered heart palpitations. Others complained of headaches. Reuters could not verify the posts.

On Friday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi blamed the nation’s enemies for the recent series of incidents across the nation. In a speech to a crowd in southern Iran that was carried live on state television, Raisi said the nation’s “foes are trying to create unrest in the various fields in the country.”

He said Iran’s “enemies said seek to cause problems on the streets, markets, and in schools to disappoint the Iranian nation.”

President orders investigation

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency IRNA reported earlier this week that Raisi ordered an immediate investigation of illness among schoolgirls in more than 30 schools in at least four cities going back to November, including in Iran's Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

It was the first time the Iranian president publicly addressed the suspected poisonings affecting the schoolchildren.

Some estimates say as many as 900 schoolgirls have been affected by the suspected poisonings, prompting international observers to suggest the incidents were attacks on educating young women.

Asked about the incidents in an interview with VOA on Friday, John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, called the situation “deeply disturbing,” though he stopped short of blaming Iran for the poisonings.

"I'm afraid we don't have more information now about these reports of poisonings," he said, noting that the Iranian government is investigating.

"We want that investigation to be thorough, complete and transparent with the Iranian people, as well as the rest of the world," Kirby told VOA. "Little girls should not have to worry about their safety when they go to school, they should only have to worry about their grades."

He would not say whether the United States is prepared to offer help to solve the incidents.

The United Nation's children’s humanitarian agency, UNICEF, offered Thursday to help Iran solve the incidents.

In a statement posted to its Twitter account, UNICEF said, "School is a safe haven for children and teenagers to learn in a safe and supportive environment. Such events can have a negative impact on the high rate of education of children, especially girls, which has been achieved in recent decades. UNICEF stands ready to provide any support needed.”

Source: Voice of America