DUBAI (Reuters) – A fire broke out on Saturday in Tehran’s Evin prison, where several political and binational detainees are held in Iran, and witnesses reported hearing gunfire.
Eight people were injured in the unrest, which erupted after nearly a month of protests across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, the official IRNA news agency said.
The protests posed one of the most serious challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution, with demonstrations spreading across the country and some chanting the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
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A statement by the Iranian judiciary said that a prison workshop was set on fire “after a quarrel between a number of prisoners convicted of financial crimes and theft.” The Tehran Fire Department told state media that the cause of the accident was under investigation.
The prison, located in the hillsides on the northern edge of the Iranian capital, houses criminal convicts and political detainees.
“The roads to Evin prison are closed to traffic. There are a lot of ambulances here,” said a witness contacted by Reuters. “We can still hear gunshots.”
Another witness said that families of prisoners gathered in front of the main entrance to the prison. “I can see fire and smoke. Lots of special forces,” the witness said.
A security official said calm had returned to the prison, but the first witness said ambulance sirens were heard and smoke was still rising above the prison.
“People from nearby buildings are chanting from their windows ‘Death to Khamenei’,” the witness said.
Early on Sunday, the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency broadcast a video that it said showed prison areas damaged by the fire. Firefighters were seen covering the rubble with water, apparently to prevent the fire from igniting again.
The prison mostly holds detainees facing security charges, including dual Iranians. It has long been criticized by Western rights groups and blacklisted by the US government in 2018 for “serious human rights violations”.
His lawyer said Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American imprisoned for nearly seven years on espionage charges dismissed by Washington as baseless, returned to Evin on Wednesday after taking a short leave.
Other US citizens being held in Evin include environmental expert Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British citizenship, and businessman Imad Sharqi, according to human rights lawyer Saeed Dehghan.
He added that several other dual nationals are being held in Evin, including the French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah and the Iranian-Swedish disaster doctor Ahmad Reza Jalali.
Asked about the prison fire, US President Joe Biden told reporters during his campaign trip to Portland, Oregon: “The Iranian government is very repressive.”
He said he was surprised by the “courage of the people and women who took to the street” in the recent protests and had great respect for them. “It was really cool,” he added. “They are not a good group, in government.”
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price tweeted, “We are urgently following reports from Evin Prison. We are in contact with the Swiss as our protecting power. Iran is fully responsible for the safety of our unjustly detained citizens, who should be released immediately.”
Human Rights Watch accused the prison authorities of using threats of torture and indefinite imprisonment, as well as lengthy interrogations and denial of medical care for detainees.
“No security (political) prisoner was involved in today’s clash between the prisoners, and basically the security prisoners’ ward is separate and away from the wards of thieves and those convicted of financial crimes,” an unnamed official told Tasnim news agency.
Clergy lose out
The unrest in Evin prison occurred 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 being held for “improper dress”.
Although the unrest does not appear close to toppling the regime, the protests have expanded into strikes that have shuttered shops and businesses, impacted the vital energy sector and inspired outrageous dissent against theocracy in Iran.
Demonstrators across Iran on Saturday chanted in the streets and universities against the country’s religious leaders.
A video released by the Norway-based Iran Human Rights Organization purports to show protests in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city, as protesters chant “Clergy are lost” and drivers sound their horns.
Videos released by the group showed a raid on shopkeepers in the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqqaz – Amini’s hometown. Another video clip on social media showed high school students chanting “Woman, life, freedom” in the streets of Sanandaj, the capital of the Kurdistan Region.
Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the videos. Phone and internet services in Iran have been disrupted frequently over the past month, and internet monitoring company NetBlocks reported a “new significant disruption” shortly before protests began on Saturday.
The activist Iranian news agency Hana said in an online post that 240 protesters were killed in the unrest, including 32 minors. It said that 26 members of the security forces were killed and about 8,000 arrested in protests in 111 cities and towns and about 73 universities.
Among the victims were teenage girls whose deaths turned into a rallying cry for more demonstrations calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic.
On Saturday, protesters called for demonstrations in the northwestern city of Ardabil to protest the killing of a teenage girl from the Azerbaijani minority, Asra Panahi, who activists alleged was beaten to death by security forces.
Officials denied the news, and news agencies close to the Revolutionary Guard quoted her uncle as saying that the high school student had died of a heart attack.
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Reporting from the Dubai office Additional reporting by Lucia Motikani, Mike Stone and Jeff Mason in Washington Writing by Dominic Evans Editing by Helen Popper, William MacLean, Paul Simao and Diane Kraft
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