Iran’s supreme leader has said whoever is responsible for suspected poisonings at girls’ schools should be executed for an “unforgivable crime”.
More than 1,000 children have become ill since November in 25 of the country’s 31 provinces, according to officials and state media.
“If the poisoning of students is proven, those behind this crime should be sentenced to capital punishment and there will be no amnesty for them,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – quoted by state news agency IRNA.
Interior minister Ahmad Vahidi said at the weekend that “suspicious samples” had been gathered but urged people to stay calm.
He said at least 52 schools across the country had been affected and claimed unnamed enemies of the republic were trying to incite fear.
At least one boys’ school in the western city of Borujerd has also been affected, state media reported.
No details have been given on which chemicals may have been used or exactly who could be responsible, but officials have said test results will be published “as soon as possible”.
Pictures of girls wearing oxygen masks and connected to intravenous drips have sparked protests in some cities, including the capital Tehran, with anger also directed at Iran‘s Revolutionary Guard.
The children affected have reportedly complained of heart palpitations, dizziness, headaches, lethargy and feeling unable to move – but so far no one has died.
Some described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning products.
Schoolgirls were among those who took part in the wave of anti-government demonstrations last year over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Some were pictured removing their headscarves, tearing up pictures of the Ayatollah and calling for his death.
It has been suggested the apparent poisonings could be a form of revenge for that activism or a more general attack on girls’ education.
The UN human rights office in Geneva has called for a transparent investigation into the suspected attacks, with countries including Germany and the US voicing concern.
A similar case of suspected poisonings – involving girls in Afghanistan – was reported between 2009 and 2012 but the World Health Organization (WHO) found no evidence and said it appeared to be “mass psychogenic illnesses”.
Iranian media also reported on Monday that Ali Pourtabatabaei, a journalist based in Qom who had been regularly reporting on the case, had been detained.
It comes after the hardline Kayhan newspaper called for publishers who printed stories critical of Iran’s rulers to be arrested.