Iranian poisoning mystery

ByTalal Wasif Qavi

A barrister


March 15, 2023

Talal Wasif Qavi describes a terrible happening

Iran is mired in controversy and the latest of them is the poisoning issue that has gained international attraction. It is reported that more than a 1,000 Iranian students – mostly schoolgirls – have fallen ill over the past three months in what has been reported to be a wave of poisonings, possibly with toxic gas. Dozens of girls in at least 26 schools across the country reportedly fell ill on a single day last week indicating a clear escalation in cases. Many patients have reported similar symptoms: respiratory problems, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. The first known case was reported at a school in the city of Qom, when 18 schoolgirls fell ill and were taken to hospital on 30 November. Since then, at least 58 schools in eight provinces have been affected and most cases have involved girls – at both primary and high schools – although there have been some reports of boys and teachers affected.

Intriguingly, government officials have given conflicting reasons for the pupil’s illness and Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, has ordered an inquiry to get to the root cause. Many in Iran believe students are being deliberately poisoned in an attempt to close girls’ schools, which have been one of centres of anti-government protests since September. Some pupils and parents suggested that schoolgirls may have been targeted for taking part in recent anti-government protests. The cause however of the illness remains unclear and experts point out that finding the alleged causative substance is often the only useful evidence but can be extremely difficult. They add that as substances can dissipate or degrade, collecting a sample pretty much requires one to be there, with the right equipment, at the time of exposure. Many witness accounts from Iran have focused on smells – describing a tangerine or rotten fish odour – but this can be misleading.

Scores of Iranian schools have been hit by poisonings since late November, with pupils suffering symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to nausea and vertigo after reporting unpleasant odours on school premises and some have been treated in hospitals. Twenty-five out of 31 provinces and approximately 230 schools have been affected. Various tests are being carried out to identify the type and cause of the poisonings but so far, no specific information has been obtained regarding the type of poison used. Toxicologists have not been able to detect toxins and point out that what they have seen indicates that it was unlikely that a nerve agent or an organophosphate poison – like those used in pesticides – could be responsible.

The mystery poisonings have triggered a wave of anger and demands for action from the authorities. They have also sparked international concern and Western calls for an independent investigation, particularly as the first cases were reported soon after the start of nationwide protests over the death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, 22, following her arrest for allegedly breaching Iran’s strict dress code for women against a backdrop of harsh government repression of protest many analysts are of the opinion that it was not at all surprising that one would get this happening now in Iranian schools. The Iranian cases appeared to be very reminiscent of outbreaks of undiagnosed illness in Kosovo in 1990 and the occupied West Bank in 1986. The fact remains that no biomedical cause was found in either and experts believe they were the result of mass socio-genic illness. In cases of mass sociogenic illness – which used to be described as mass hysteria – the symptoms experienced are real but they are caused by anxiety not toxic poisoning.

Iranian government announced that it had made the first arrests in a spate of mystery poisonings with Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for the perpetrators of the unforgivable crime to be tracked down without mercy as public anger mounts. It was mentioned that based on the intelligence and research measures of the intelligence agencies, a number of people have been arrested in five provinces but their identity was not disclosed and any possible motive was also missing. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi blamed enemies for the poisonings adding that this is a security project to cause chaos in the country whereby the enemy seeks to instill fear and insecurity among parents and students.

The United Nations backed a call from Germany’s foreign minister urging a full and transparent investigation into the reported poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls in Iran. The German government declared that the reports of schoolgirls being poisoned in Iran are shocking adding that girls must be able to go to school without fear as it is nothing less than their human right. In Geneva, the UN rights office also voiced alarm at the poisoning allegations and expressed concerns about the allegations that girls are being deliberately targeted under what appear to be mysterious circumstances. TW


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