DUBAI, Oct 15 (Reuters) – A fire broke out at Tehran’s Evin prison, where many of Iran’s political and dual national detainees are held, on Saturday, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots.
State news agency IRNA said eight people were injured in the unrest, which erupted after nearly a month of protests across Iran over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman.
The protests have posed one of the most serious challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution, with demonstrations spreading across the country and some chanting for the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
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An Iranian court statement said a prison workshop was set on fire “after a fight between several prisoners convicted of financial crimes and robbery.” The Tehran fire department told state media that the cause of the incident was being investigated.
The prison, located in the foothills on the northern edge of the Iranian capital, holds convicted criminals and political detainees.
“The roads leading to Evin prison have been closed to traffic. There are many ambulances here,” said a witness contacted by Reuters. “Still, we can hear gunshots.”
Another witness said that the families of the prisoners had gathered in front of the main entrance of the prison. “I can see fire and smoke. A lot of special forces,” the witness said.
A security official said calm had been restored in the prison, but the first witness said ambulance sirens could be heard and smoke was still rising over the prison.
“People in nearby buildings are singing ‘Death to Khamenei’ from their windows,” the witness said.
Early Sunday, IRNA released a video it said showed fire-damaged areas of the prison. Firefighters were seen spraying the rubble with water, apparently to prevent the flames from reigniting.
The prison primarily houses detainees facing security charges, including Iranian dual nationals. It has long been criticized by Western human rights groups and was blacklisted by the US government in 2018 for “serious human rights abuses”.
Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American jailed for nearly seven years on espionage-related charges dismissed by Washington as baseless, returned to Evin on Wednesday after being granted a brief furlough, his lawyer said.
Other US citizens detained in Evin include environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who is also a British national, and businessman Emad Shargi, according to human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan.
He added that several other dual nationals are being held in Evin, including French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah and Iranian-Swedish Ahmadreza Djalali, a doctor of disaster medicine.
When asked about the prison fire, US President Joe Biden told reporters during a campaign trip to Portland, Oregon: “The Iranian government is very oppressive.”
He said he was amazed at “the bravery of the people and women taking to the streets” in the recent protests and had enormous respect for them. “It’s been really amazing,” he added. “They are not a good group, in government.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted: “We are following the reports from Evin Prison with urgency. We are in contact with the Swiss as our protective power. Iran bears full responsibility for the safety of our unjustly detained citizens, who must be released immediately. “
Human Rights Watch has accused prison authorities of using threats of torture and indefinite imprisonment, as well as lengthy interrogations and denying detainees medical care.
“No security (political) prisoner was involved in today’s confrontation between prisoners, and basically the room for security prisoners is separate and far from the rooms for thieves and those convicted of financial crimes,” an anonymous official said. to the Tasnim news agency.
‘CLERICS ARE LOST’
The Evin prison riots come after nearly a month of protests in Iran since Amini, a 22-year-old woman from the country’s Kurdish region, died on September 16 while in detention for “inappropriate dress”.
Although the unrest does not appear to be close to overthrowing the system, the protests have turned into strikes that have shuttered shops and businesses, touched the vital energy sector and inspired brazen acts of dissent against Iran’s religious regime.
On Saturday, protesters across Iran chanted in the streets and on campuses against the country’s clerical leaders.
A video released by the Norway-based organization Iran Human Rights purported to show protests in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city, with protesters chanting “Clerics get lost” and drivers honking their horns.
Videos released by the group showed a shopkeepers’ strike in the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez, Amini’s hometown. Another video on social media showed high school students chanting “Woman, life, freedom” in the streets of Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the videos. Phone and internet services in Iran have been frequently disrupted over the past month with internet watchdog NetBlocks reporting “a new major outage” shortly before protests began on Saturday.
The Iranian activist news agency HRANA said in an online post that 240 protesters had been killed in the unrest, including 32 minors. It said that 26 members of the security forces were killed and almost 8,000 people were arrested in protests in 111 cities and towns and some 73 universities.
Among the victims are teenagers whose deaths have become a rallying cry for more demonstrations demanding the fall of the Islamic Republic.
Protesters called for demonstrations in the northwestern city of Ardabil on Saturday over the death of Asra Panahi, a teenager from the Azeri ethnic minority who activists say was beaten to death by security forces.
Officials denied the report, and news agencies close to the Revolutionary Guards quoted her uncle as saying the high school student had died of a heart problem.
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Dubai office reporting, additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Mike Stone, and Jeff Mason in Washington, written by Dominic Evans edited by Helen Popper, William Maclean, Paul Simao, and Diane Craft
Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.