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Last Updated: Monday, 14 June, 2004, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Toxic alcohol kills 17 Iranians
File photo of street scene in Shiraz
Jews and Christians in Shiraz may drink, but Muslims face punishment
Seventeen people have died and more than 20 others are in a critical condition after drinking contaminated alcohol in Iran, officials say.

At least five of those affected are said to have gone blind.

Hospitals in the city of Shiraz reported a sudden rush of severe poisoning cases last week.

Investigations revealed a home-brewed moonshine, possibly strengthened with highly-toxic methanol, was making people ill.

A judiciary official from Fars province said "a number of people" were still in a coma, suggesting more people could die.

Thriving black market

Hassan Ali Amiri said: "In the last 24 hours, 23 more people have also been admitted to hospital."

Those who had been found dead included two people in their homes and one in a park, he said.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Tehran says the emergency took some time to come to light because people were reluctant to admit they had been drinking alcohol, which is illegal in the Islamic republic.

The judiciary said the investigation was being hampered by the families' reluctance to talk, but that 14 suspects had already been arrested.

Although Shiraz has given its name to one of the world's best-known wine grapes, the sale of alcohol is officially banned.

Alcohol consumption by Muslims is subject to punishment by imprisonment, fines or lashes, although Christians and Jews are allowed to drink in private.

In practice, says our correspondent, there is a thriving trade in locally made or smuggled alcohol, with the temptation for unscrupulous or ignorant dealers to make more money by adulterating their products.


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