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Source: RFE/RL

Mar 7, 2023

By RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iran's judiciary has charged three media outlets and three individuals for their comments on a series of mysterious incidents that have left scores of schoolgirls around the country ill.

Tehran's prosecutor announced on March 7 that he had filed a case against the editorial directors of the HamMihan, Roydad24, and Sharq newspapers, as well as political activists Azar Mansouri and Sadegh Zibakalam University professor and prominent actor Reza Kianian.

Ali Salehi, the prosecutor of Tehran Province, accused the outlets and individuals of "spreading rumors and lies" about the wave of illnesses that has swept through schools and dormitories.

The first report of suspected mass illness came in Qom in November, when 18 schoolgirls were taken to a hospital after complaining of symptoms that included nausea, headaches, coughing, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, and numbness and pain in their hands or legs.

Since then, hundreds of cases have occurred and it remains unclear what might be causing the illnesses, though some of those affected have said they smelled chlorine or cleaning agents, while others said they thought they smelled tangerines in the air.

Some officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have characterized the situation as "poisonings," though health officials are still investigating the situation and it remains unclear what is causing dozens of students to be hospitalized.

Some officials say anxiety over the situation may be causing some students to seek medical help.The muted response by the authorities has prompted some to accuse the government of purposely "poisoning" students, who have been at the forefront of months of anti-government protests -- the biggest threat to the Islamic leadership since the 1979 revolution.Teachers and parents of students across the country staged more protests on March 7.

In the southern city of Nurabad, teachers gathered and called for the government to step down.One of the teachers who gave a speech in Nurabad said that security agencies were quickly identifying and imprisoning anyone who writes anti-government graffiti, "but they do not accept responsibility for these chemical issues in schools."

Meanwhile, protesters in Tehran's Poonak neighborhood and others in the capital on March 6, chanted "Death to the child-murdering government!" and "Death to the dictator," a reference to Khamenei, from windows and rooftops as reports of the illness continued to surface.

Similar scenes were reported in other Iranian cities, including Mahabad, Mashhad, Babol, Rasht, and Sanandaj.Iran has been roiled by unrest since the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a hijab, or head scarf, improperly.

The government has held several counterrallies to try to quell the dissent, but people continue to take to the streets across the country, as universities and schools have become leading venues for clashes between protesters and the authorities.

Security forces have also launched a series of raids on schools across the country, violently arresting students, especially female students, who have defiantly taken off their hijabs in protest.

Earlier this week, security agents detained a journalist who has actively covered the wave of illnesses from one of its epicenters, the central city of Qom.Meanwhile, the Fars news agency reported on March 7 that an unspecified number of arrests had been made in five provinces in connection with the incidents.

It gave no further details.Khamenei has called for harsh punishments for those responsible, describing what has happened as an "unforgivable crime."

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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