Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says there is no doubt the poisonings are intentional as the top court suggests the perpetrators could be executed.
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 “grievous and unforgivable crime” and that the perpetrators should face the “hardest punishment” for incidents that have caused fear among parents and throughout Iranian society .
“If there are people who have a hand in this – and there are undoubtedly some way – then responsible organizations, including intelligence agencies and law enforcement, must find the origins of this crime,” he said.
Khamenei gave no idea who or which groups might be behind the poisonings.
Shortly after Khamenei’s remarks, Iran’s judiciary chief promised the courts would act quickly and suggested that those responsible face the death penalty.
“Based on the definition given by the law, the perpetrators are undoubtedly guilty of ‘corruption on earth,'” Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei said, referring to a formal charge used by Iran’s judiciary that carries the death penalty.
The first case of schoolgirls showing poisoning symptoms occurred in late November in the religiously important city of Qom, with dozens of girls taken to 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 in early March.
The number of attacks increased across Iran over the past week after the issue gained increasing media coverage inside and outside Iran, and a health official said the poisonings were deliberate attempts to deter girls from attending school.
Authorities have not provided figures, but numerous incidents have been reported likely to affect several thousand students.
The incidents share the same characteristics and mainly affect schoolgirls who experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, headache, nausea, palpitations and numbness of the extremities. Some victims reported smelling strange odors such as rotten fruit, strong perfumes or a burning smell. Most cases were not serious, but many students had to be hospitalized.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement last week that it had found “suspicious samples” in the schools and that the investigation results will be released at a later date.
The driver of a chemical truck seen near several affected schools has been arrested, state television reported last week. But no other arrests have been confirmed and authorities have not given a definitive explanation for the poisonings.
Local media reported on Sunday that Ali Pourtabatabaei, a journalist who covered the news in Qom and who followed 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 range of reasons put forward by some officials, lawmakers and media for the poisonings, including speculation of “mass hysteria”.
However, the supreme leader did not comment on whether the poisonings came from inside or outside the country – something senior officials have commented on.
President Ebrahim Raisi has blamed a “conspiracy” by the Islamic Republic’s foreign enemies.
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 following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.