Tehran, Iran – Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called for the perpetrators of schoolgirl poisonings to be punished as attacks spread across the country.
Speaking on the sidelines of an annual tree-planting ceremony on Monday, Khamenei said the poisonings are a “major and unforgivable crime” and the perpetrators must face the “harshest punishment” for incidents that have spread fear among parents and throughout Iranian society.
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“If there are people who have a hand in this – and there are those that undoubtedly do in some way – then responsible organisations, including intelligence and law enforcement, need to find the origin of this crime,” he said.
Khamenei offered no clue as to who or what groups may be behind the poisonings.
Shortly after Khamenei’s comments, Iran’s judiciary chief promised the courts will act swiftly and suggested those responsible would face the death penalty.
“Based on the definition that the law has, the perpetrators are undoubtedly guilty of ‘corruption on earth’,” said Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, referencing a formal charge the Iranian judiciary uses that carries a death sentence.
The first case of schoolgirls showing poisoning symptoms occurred in the religiously significant city of Qom in late November with dozens of girls taken to the hospital. Many similar cases continued to take place in primary and secondary schools there before spreading to the capital Tehran and at least two other cities at the start of March.
The attacks increased over the past week across Iran after the issue received increasing media attention inside and outside Iran, and a health official said the poisonings were deliberate attempts at keeping girls from going to school.
Authorities have not provided any figures, but numerous incidents likely affecting several thousand students have been reported.
The incidents bear the same hallmarks, mostly affecting schoolgirls who experience symptoms including shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, and numbness of the limbs. Some victims reported smelling strange odours such as rotten fruit, strong perfumes or a burning smell. Most cases have not been severe, but many students have had to be hospitalised.
The interior ministry said in a statement last week it found “suspicious samples” at the schools and investigation results will be announced at a later date.
The driver of a truck carrying chemicals that was seen near several affected schools has been arrested, state television said last week. But no other arrests have been confirmed and authorities have not provided a definitive explanation of the poisonings.
Local media reported on Sunday that Ali Pourtabatabaei, a journalist covering news in Qom who was following up on the attacks, has been arrested. Authorities have not commented on his arrest.
Khamenei’s comments could potentially put an end to a wide variety of reasons provided by some officials, lawmakers and media outlets for the poisonings, including speculation of “mass hysteria”.
The supreme leader, however, did not discuss whether the poisonings originated from inside or outside the country – something senior officials have commented on.
President Ebrahim Raisi has blamed a “conspiracy” by the foreign enemies of the Islamic Republic.
He has not named any countries, but Iran has regularly accused Western powers and Israel of being behind unrest within its borders, including months of protests that spread across Iran last September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.