A major fire has broken out amid clashes at Tehran’s Evin prison, where many of Iran’s political and dual national detainees are held, according to officials and witnesses.
State news agency IRNA said eight people were injured in Saturday’s unrest, which erupted after nearly a month of protests across Iran over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman.
The protests have posed one of the most serious challenges to the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution, with demonstrations spreading across the country and some chanting for the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
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 roads leading to Evin prison have been closed to traffic. There are many ambulances here,” said a witness contacted by the Reuters news agency. “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, while IRNA reported that “the situation is now completely under control.” But the first witness told Reuters that ambulance sirens could be heard and smoke was still rising over the prison.
“People in nearby buildings sing ‘Death to Khamenei’ from their windows,” the witness said.
از زندان اوین ۲۳ مهر صدای تیراندازی شنیده و دود آتش دیده میشود.#مهسا_امینی pic.twitter.com/vrei5cu9eM
— +۱۵۰۰تصویر (@1500tasvir) October 15, 2022
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”.
‘Numb with worry’
The detainees include French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah and US citizen Siamak Namazi, whose family said he was detained again this week after a temporary release.
Reacting to reports of the fire, Namazi’s family said in a statement to the AFP news agency shared by their lawyer that they were “deeply concerned” and had not heard from him.
They urged the Iranian authorities to grant him “immediate” means to contact his family and give him a permit “since he is clearly not safe in Evin prison”.
The sister of another US citizen held in Evin, businessman Emad Shargi, said her family was “numb with worry” in a Twitter post.
An unnamed Iranian official told the Tasnim news agency that none of the political prisoners were involved in Saturday’s riots.
“No security prisoners were involved in today’s confrontation between prisoners, and basically the security prisoners’ room is separate and far from the rooms for thieves and those convicted of financial crimes,” the official said.
Protests reported nearby #Evin Prison in Tehran after the prison went up in flames with sounds of gunshots and explosions. #Mahsa_Amini
Context: https://t.co/kxNFKdyq79#مهسا_امینی#زندان_اوین pic.twitter.com/9XburD0Tf8
— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) October 15, 2022
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 surprised by “the courage of the people and women who take [to] the street” in the recent protests and had enormous respect for them. “It’s been really amazing,” she 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 attention.
The Evin prison riots come after nearly a month of protests across 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 toppling the government, 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 at universities 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.
The videos could not be immediately verified.
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 Iran’s government.
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.