Iranian officials say Tehran prison blaze killed 4 inmates
A towering blaze at a notorious prison housing political prisoners and anti-government activists in Iran’s capital has killed four inmates, the country’s judiciary says.
Flames and smoke rising from Tehran’s Evin Prison had been widely visible on Saturday evening, as nationwide anti-government protests triggered by the death of a young woman in police custody entered a fifth week.
In online videos, gunshots and explosions could be heard in the area of the prison.
The blaze was extinguished after several hours and no detainees escaped, state media said on Sunday.
They said the fire broke out after a fight between prisoners, in an apparent attempt to distance the events there from the ongoing protests.
Hundreds are being held at Evin, where human rights groups have reported repeated abuses of prisoners.
State media originally reported nine people were injured but the Judiciary website Mizan.news on Sunday said four inmates died of smoke inhalation and 61 others were injured. It said all four who died were in prison on robbery convictions.
Ten inmates were hospitalised, with four of them in serious condition, Mizan reported. It said some prisoners had tried to escape but failed.
State TV on Sunday aired video of the fire’s aftermath, showing scorched walls and ceilings in a room it said was the upper floor of a sewing workshop at the prison.
“This fire was caused by a fight between some prisoners in a sewing workshop,” said Tehran Governor Mohsen Mansouri.
“The workshop was set up to create jobs” for prisoners, he said.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported on Saturday that there were clashes between prisoners in one ward and prison personnel, citing a senior security official.
The official said prisoners set fire to a warehouse full of prison uniforms, which caused the blaze. He said the “rioters” were separated from the other prisoners to de-escalate the conflict.
The official said the “situation is completely under control” and that firefighters were extinguishing the flames. Later, Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi said that calm had returned to the prison and that the unrest was not related to the protests which have swept the country for four weeks.
IRNA later reported nine people had been injured, without elaborating. It published video showing burnt debris scattered around a building, with firefighters spraying down the blaze’s embers.
Families of inmates gathered Sunday near the prison hoping for news of their loved ones inside.
Masoumeh, 49, who only gave her first name, said his 19-year-old son was taken to the prison two weeks ago after taking part in the street protests.
“I cannot trust news about his health, I need to see him closely,” she said.
Another man, Reza, who also gave only his first name, said his brother has been in Evin Prison since last year after he was involved in a violent quarrel.
“He did not call us in recent days and following last night’s fire I am here to learn what happened to him,” he said.
Footage of the blaze circulated online.
Videos showed shots ringing out as plumes of smoke rose into the sky amid the sound of an alarm.
‘Death to the Dictator’
A protest broke out on the street soon after, with many chanting “Death to the Dictator!” — a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and burning tyres, circulating videos showed.
Witnesses said that police blocked roads and highways to Evin prison and that at least three strong explosions were heard coming from the area.
Traffic was heavy along major motorways near the prison, which is in the north of the capital, and many people honked to show their solidarity with protests.
Riot police were seen riding on motorbikes toward the facility, as were ambulances and fire trucks. Witnesses reported that the internet was blocked in the area.
The US-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran reported that an “armed conflict” broke out within the prison walls.
It said shots were first heard in ward seven of the prison.
This account could not immediately be verified.
The prison fire occurred as protesters intensified anti-government demonstrations along main streets and at universities in some cities across Iran on Saturday.
Hundreds of dead in weeks of protests
Human rights monitors reported hundreds of dead, including children, as the movement concluded its fourth week.
Demonstrators also chanted “Down with the Dictator” on the streets of Ardabil in the country’s north-west.
Outside of universities in Kermanshah, Rasht and Tehran, students rallied, according to videos on social media.
In the city of Sanandaj, a hotspot for demonstrations in the northern Kurdish region, school girls chanted “woman, life, freedom” down a central street.
The protests erupted after public outrage over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.
She was arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
Iran’s government insists Amini was not mistreated in police custody, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained.
At least 233 protesters have been killed since demonstrations swept Iran on September 17, according to US-based rights monitor HRANA.
The group said 32 of the dead were below the age of 18.
Earlier, Oslo-based Iran Human Rights estimated 201 people had been killed.
Iranian authorities have dismissed the unrest as a purported Western plot, without providing evidence.
Angry women remove their headscarves
Public anger in Iran has coalesced around Amini’s death, prompting girls and women to remove their mandatory headscarves on the street in a show of solidarity.
Other segments of society, including oil workers, have also joined the movement, which has spread to at least 19 cities, becoming one of the greatest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the country’s 2009 Green Movement.
Riots have also broken out in prisons, with clashes reported between inmates and guards in Lakan prison in the northern province of Gilan recently.
History of brutality in Evin Prison
Evin Prison, which holds detainees facing security-related charges and include dual citizens, has been charged by rights groups with abusing inmates.
The facility has long been known for holding political prisoners as well as those with ties to the West who have been used by Iran as bargaining chips in international negotiations.
Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American who had been furloughed from prison while serving a 10-year sentence on internationally criticised spying charges, was recently sent back into Evin.
His 85-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, was freed and allowed to leave the country.
In 2018, the prison was slapped with US sanctions.
“Prisoners held at Evin Prison are subject to brutal tactics inflicted by prison authorities, including sexual assaults, physical assaults and electric shock,” the US Treasury Department wrote in a statement after announcing the sanctions in 2018.
Strikes in key cities
Commercial strikes resumed Saturday in key cities across the Kurdish region, including Saqqez, Amini’s hometown and the birthplace of the protests, Bukan and Sanandaj.
The government has responded with a brutal crackdown, arresting activists and protest organisers, reprimanding Iranian celebrities for voicing support, even confiscating their passports, and using live ammunition, tear gas and sound bombs to disperse crowds, leading to deaths.
In a video widely distributed on Saturday, plainclothes Basij, a paramilitary volunteer group, are seen forcing a woman into a car and firing bullets into the air amid a protest in Gohardasht, in northern Iran.
Widespread internet outages have also made it difficult for protesters to communicate with the outside world, while Iranian authorities have detained at least 40 journalists since the unrest began, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.