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Source: The Guardian

Mar 7, 2023

No details given about suspects as regime cracks down on criticism of its response to alleged school attacks

BY Patrick Wintour

Iran has announced the first arrests connected to a spate of suspected poisonings of schoolgirls that has gripped the country.

“Based on the intelligence and research measures of the intelligence agencies, a number of people have been arrested in five provinces and the relevant agencies are conducting a full investigation,” the deputy interior minister, Majid Mirahmadi, told state television. Mirahmadi did not provide details on the detained individuals.

The arrests come as Tehran cracks down on criticism of its response to the suspected attacks. On Monday, three journalists and three dissidents, including a retired academic, were called in for questioning after challenging the government’s handling of the incidents.

More girls were taken from their schools in ambulances on Tuesday, as protests were held outside the ministry of education in Tehran. Teaching union leaders were reportedly arrested during clashes with security forces.

Medical organisations have called on authorities to do more to protect schoolchildren and opponents of the regime, and have said that the security services may have turned a blind eye to religious extremists allegedly punishing girls for taking part in the nationwide protest movement sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini last September.

Messages from the government remained contradictory after the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that anyone found guilty of poisoning children should be “severely punished”.

Officials from the education department have claimed that at least some of the girls who have fallen ill have a form of “mass hysteria”.

The education minister, Yousef Nouri, said 95% of the girls going to hospitals or medical centres had no medical problem – only fear and worry – while a few had underlying diseases. He urged parents only to pay attention to information transmitted by reliable official media, adding that “it was natural for our enemy to conspire to close schools and stop students from studying”.

His remarks came soon after the Iranian health ministry published the first report of its scientific committee investigation into the suspected poisonings. The committee announced that “some of the students were exposed to an irritant substance that is mainly inhaled”.

The supreme leader’s intervention was a significant admission that the public was deeply concerned about what was happening, given that the government previously had little to say about the incidents of girls falling sick, which started last November.

The US state department spokesperson, Ned Price, said if poisonings had taken place and were in some way linked to suppressing women’s protests, then it would be legitimate for an already established UN-led inquiry into the protests to examine the issue.

The three journalists called in for questioning by the Tehran prosecutor are from Hamehan, Event 24 and Shargh. Event 24 has interviewed psychiatrists who dismissed suggestions the girls were suffering from some sort of psychological event.

On Monday, it emerged authorities had arrested Ali Portbatabaei, a moderator at the news website Qom News who has reported regularly on the suspected poisonings.

The three other individuals called in for questioning are Azar Mansouri, the secretary general of the reformist Ittehad Mellat party; Sadegh Zibakalam, a reformist Tehran professor; and Reza Kianian, an actor and writer. They have been accused of spreading lies about the suspected poisonings but may face questions about social media posts in support of the wider protests.

In an Instagram post, Kianian challenged state media for failing to cover the scale of the alleged attacks on girls, and asked what the government was doing to find those responsible.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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