Iran urged to free reporter who covered poisonings of schoolgirls

PARIS — Leading media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Iran to release a journalist arrested after closely covering a spate of mystery poisonings of schoolgirls, saying the detention appeared to be an attempt to silence him.

The spate of poisonings has affected over 5,000 pupils, mainly girls, since November, according to the authorities.

Rights groups based outside Iran have accused the authorities of failing to do enough to protect women’s education and there were protests across Iran outside education authorities on Monday and Tuesday, according to monitors.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Monday for the perpetrators of the “unforgivable crime” to be tracked down “without mercy.”

Paris-based RSF says Ali Pourtabatabaei began covering the story for the Qom News website and on Twitter as soon as the first cases of poisoning were reported in the holy city of Qom at the end of November, and he was still covering the story when he was arrested on March 5.

It says he managed to phone his sister to tell her he had been arrested but it was not clear where he was being held.

Pourtabatabaei has criticized the lack of any reaction from the authorities in Qom to the first reported cases of poisoning, it adds.

The mystery poisonings have intensified tensions in Iran almost six months into the protest movement sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini who had been arrested for allegedly violating the mandatory dress code for women.

Since the early days of the protest movement, Iran has held the two Iranian female journalists, Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, who helped expose the Amini story.

“As they already did with the journalists who revealed what happened to Mahsa Amini, the Iranian authorities are trying to silence those who dare to investigate and report other stories that are embarrassing for the government,” says Jonathan Dagher, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk.

He says some 30 journalists and media workers are currently held by Iran. Most were arrested in the crackdown on the protest movement.

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