Families crowd in front of the girls’ school, in the center of Lahidjan (north-west of Iran), to try to access the establishment, the entrance to which is blocked by the police. Unrest rises in the street, while behind the school walls, medical staff examine students poisoned by a mysterious gas. “The school is responsible for the safety of the children. It is strange that instead of cooperating with the families, the school authorities listen to the security forces and examine the pupils behind closed doors”, denounces Abolfazl Mohammadi, the brother of Zainab, one of the young victims.
Nearly four months after the first poisonings of female students in the religious city of Qom in December, the case described as an “organized movement” by Iranian officials has taken on a new dimension in recent days: in more than 200 schools in girls, students and teachers were simultaneously victims of poisoning in several provinces of Iran. On Tuesday March 7, Tehran announced arrests in five provinces, without giving further details. Until then, the only person arrested was Ali Pourtabatabai, a journalist who was investigating this unexplained phenomenon, sometimes described as poisoning, intoxication or attack.
Abolfazl Mohammadi was informed on March 2 by his sister that she and her classmates had been poisoned and that no one was allowed to leave the school. The young girls were interrogated. “Zainab had remarks about her hijab and was questioned about her mobile phone. A questionable security approach, he believes, especially since most schools claim that their CCTV cameras were not working at the time of the attack. »
Since the incident, Zainab and her classmates have not returned to school out of fear. While the cause of the poisonings remains unknown, there is speculation about the motive and possible role of Muslim extremist groups hostile to girls’ education. Since the symptoms are not the same everywhere, the origin could also differ depending on the region. Most of the students, however, have in common that they smelled a strong smell of mint, rotten egg, burning or tar during the attacks, arguing for the use of a gas mixture.
Doctors and nurses are reluctant to provide information about their patients for fear of reprisals. Doctor Adel Shahsawari, who examined some of them at the Pirouz hospital in Lahidjan, nevertheless claims to have observed cramps, numbness of the muscles and neurological symptoms. Most patients were discharged from the hospital within an hour and returned to normal. Those with a history of asthma or epileptic seizures were hospitalized briefly. For Dr. Shahsawari, this is a deliberate and criminal act that must be thoroughly investigated.
Authorities have yet to make any announcement about the nature of the chemical(s) used. A member of the Islamic Council only mentioned the presence of “nitrogen gas (N2) in the poison spread in schools” after “investigations carried out by 30 experts from the Ministry of Health”.
Demonstrations against this wave of poisonings across the country have resulted in clashes with police and arrests in Tehran, Kermanshah and Rasht. On March 5, President Ebrahim Raisi spoke of a “new enemy conspiracy” to “inflame” society and “sow confusion in the minds of the public”.
The head of the judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ajeei, has meanwhile threatened to arrest anyone who accuses the government of being responsible for the attacks. The psychosis is rising: while the police have reinforced their patrols around schools, the poisonings have spread in recent days to girls’ boarding schools and women’s sports clubs.
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