Iran’s supreme leader said on Monday that the perpetrators of a series of mysterious poisonings at a girls’ school should be sentenced to death for committing an “unforgivable crime” if proven deliberate.
It was the first time Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all matters of state, has spoken publicly about the suspected poisoning, which began late last year and sickened hundreds of children.
Iranian officials have acknowledged them in recent weeks and have not provided any details about who may have been behind the attack or what chemicals – if any – were used. As opposed to neighbors AfghanistanIran has no history of religious extremists targeting women’s education.
“If the case of poisoning the students is proven, those behind this crime should be sentenced to death and there will be no amnesty for them,” Khamenei said, according to state news agency IRNA.
Authorities have acknowledged suspected attacks on more than 50 schools across 21 of Iran’s 30 provinces since November. Some politicians blamed religious groups opposing girls’ education.
Iranian Interior Minister Ahmed Vahidi said over the weekend that investigators had collected “suspicious samples,” without elaborating. He urged the public to remain calm and accused unnamed enemies of inciting fear to weaken the Islamic Republic.
Bahidi said at least 52 schools were affected by the suspected poisoning, while Iranian media reports put the number at more than 60. At least one boy’s school was reportedly damaged.
Videos of distraught parents and schoolchildren holding IVs in emergency rooms have flooded social media.
Iran has imposed strict restrictions on independent media since nationwide protests began in September, making it difficult to determine the nature and scope of the suspected poisoning.
On Monday, Iranian media reported that authorities had arrested Qoum-based journalist Ali Pourtabatabai, who had been regularly reporting on suspected poisonings. The hard-line Kayhan newspaper in an editorial called for the arrest of newspaper publishers who published articles on the critical crisis in Iran’s theocracy.
Protests spread Death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was detained by the morality police for violating the country’s strict dress code. Religious extremists in Iran have been known to attack women in public who dress indecently. But even at the height of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, women and girls continued to attend schools and universities.
Recently, schoolgirls have been joining protests and a prominent Iranian activist who has spoken out against human rights abuses there says girls are now “paying the price” by blaming the government.
“Now Iranian girls are paying the price for fighting against mandatory hijab and have been poisoned by the government,” New York-based activist Masih Alinejad tweeted.
The Justice Department indicted the three in January alleged plot which arose from the assassination of Alinejad in Iran.
Poisoned children have complained of headaches, palpitations, feeling lethargic or otherwise unable to move. Some describe odors like tangerine, chlorine, or cleaning agents.
At least 400 schoolgirls have fallen ill since November, according to reports. The interior minister, Wahidi, said in his statement that the two girls are in hospital due to underlying chronic conditions. No casualties were reported.
Hundreds of female students have reported distressing symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and vertigo after detecting “unpleasant” or “unfamiliar” smells.
“A very bad smell suddenly spread, I felt dizzy and I fell to the ground,” a schoolgirl recounted in a television program.
As more attacks were reported on Sunday, videos were posted on social media showing children complaining of leg, stomach pain and dizziness. State media mainly referred to these as “hysterical reactions”.
Another student named Parastou and a resident of the western town of Bouroujard, Ham Meehan, told the newspaper that he “felt nausea and severe chest pain” while his “legs went numb” after one such suspected attack.
An emergency doctor at a hospital in the city said that “most of the students had symptoms like headache, shortness of breath, lethargy, nausea and hypotension”.
The mystery surrounding the poisoning has sparked concern from UN agencies abroad and sparked outrage across the country, with demands for action from the authorities.
In a report aired by the state broadcaster, the mother of one of the affected students asked authorities to post a guard at the gate of the main school and activate surveillance cameras installed on the premises.
Education Minister Youssef Nouri apologized for the incident on state TV on Sunday, declaring that “we fully understand the concerns of parents and are following the matter seriously”.
During a meeting with Qawme Nouri, Grand Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli called on officials to “resolve the problem as quickly as possible … to reassure the nation”.
“It is worrisome that the source of the poisoning of the students is yet to be determined,” he said.
The World Health Organization documented similar incidents in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, when hundreds of girls across the country complained of strange smells and poisoning. No evidence was found to support the suspicion, and the WHO said it appeared to be a “major psychogenic illness”.
AFP contributed to this report.