Wave of alleged poisoning attacks on schoolgirls sparks protests in Iran

Concerned parents protested in the Iranian capital Tehran and other cities on Saturday against a wave of suspected poisoning attacks that have affected schoolgirls in dozens of schools, according to Iranian news outlets and social media videos.

The previously unexplained diseases have affected hundreds of schoolgirls in the past few months. Iranian officials believe the girls may have been poisoned and blame Tehran’s enemies.

The country’s health minister said the girls suffered attacks with “mild poison” and some politicians have suggested the girls could be targeted by Islamist groups opposed to girls’ education.

Iran’s interior minister said on Saturday investigators had found “suspicious samples” that were being examined.

“Suspicious samples have been found in field studies, which will be examined … to identify the causes of the students’ illness and the results will be published as soon as possible,” the minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, said in a statement from the official IRNA news agency.

The disease affected more than 30 schools in at least 10 of Iran’s 31 provinces on Saturday. Videos posted on social media showed parents gathering at schools to take their children home and some students being taken to hospitals by ambulance or bus.

A woman from the city of Qom previously told CNN that her two daughters, who attended different schools, were poisoned. One girl suffered significant health problems after the poisoning: nausea, shortness of breath and numbness in her left leg and right hand, and difficulty walking.

A gathering of parents outside an Education Ministry building in western Tehran to protest the diseases turned into an anti-government demonstration, according to video verified by Reuters.

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“Basij, Guards, you are our Daesh,” the demonstrators chanted, comparing the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces to the “Islamic State” group.

Similar protests took place in two other areas in Tehran and other cities, including Isfahan and Rasht, according to unconfirmed videos.

The outbreak of schoolgirl disease comes at a critical time for Iran’s spiritual rulers, who have faced months of anti-government protests sparked by the death of a young Iranian woman in the custody of vice squads who enforce strict dress codes.

Social media posts in recent days have shown photos and videos of girls who have fallen ill, are feeling nauseous or are suffering from palpitations. Others complained of headaches. Reuters could not verify the posts.

A medical team from Isfahan University of Technology carries an injured student on a stretcher.

The United Nations human rights office in Geneva on Friday called for a transparent investigation into the alleged attacks, and countries including Germany and the United States have expressed concern.

Experts have spoken about the difficulties in investigating the situation in Iran, telling CNN that the incidents are “remarkably similar to dozens of incidents at schools in Afghanistan since 2009. The diseases remain unexplained,” said London-based defense specialist Dan Kaszeta of Royal United Services Institute.

Iran rejected what it sees as foreign interference and “hasty responses” and said Friday it was investigating the causes of the incidents.

“It is one of the Iranian government’s immediate priorities to follow up on this issue as quickly as possible and provide documented information to address families’ concerns and hold perpetrators and causes accountable,” State Department spokesman Nasser Kanaani said , told state media.

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Schoolgirls took an active part in the anti-government protests that began in September. They have removed their mandatory headscarves in classrooms, torn up pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and called for his death.