DUBAI, Oct 15 (Reuters) – A fire broke out at Tehran’s Evin prison on Saturday, where many of Iran’s political and dual-national prisoners are held, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots.
State news agency IRNA reported eight people were injured in the unrest that erupted after nearly a month of protests across Iran over the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahza Amini.
The protests have posed the most serious challenge 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 judiciary statement said the prison workshop was set on fire “after a fight between several inmates convicted of financial crimes and theft”. Tehran’s fire department told state media that the cause of the incident was under investigation.
Located in the foothills of the northern edge of the Iranian capital, the prison houses criminals and political prisoners.
“The roads leading to Evin prison are closed to traffic. There are a lot of ambulances here,” said a witness contacted by Reuters. “Still, gunshots are heard.”
Another witness said families of inmates gathered in front of the main entrance of the prison. “I see fire and smoke. A lot of special forces,” the witness said.
A security official said calm had returned to the prison, but the first witness said ambulance sirens could be heard and heavy smoke hung over the prison.
“People from nearby buildings were chanting ‘Death to Khameni’ from their windows,” the witness said.
Early on Sunday morning, IRNA carried a video showing parts of the prison damaged by the fire. Firefighters were seen putting garbage in the water to prevent the fire from re-igniting.
The prison houses prisoners facing security charges, including Iranians with dual citizenship. It has long been criticized by Western rights groups and was blacklisted by the US government in 2018 for “serious human rights violations”.
Siamak Namasi, an Iranian-American who spent nearly seven years in prison on espionage-related charges dismissed by Washington as unsubstantiated, returned to Evin on Wednesday after being granted a short reprieve, his lawyer said.
Other US citizens detained at Evin include environmentalist Morad Tahbas, a British citizen and businessman Emad Sharqi, according to human rights lawyer Saeed Dehghan.
He said several dual nationals were detained in Evin, including French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelka and Iranian-Swedish Ahmadreza Jalali, a disaster medicine doctor.
Asked about the prison fire, US President Joe Biden told reporters during a campaign trip to Portland, Oregon: “The Iranian government is very repressive.”
He said he was amazed by the bravery of the people and women in the recent protests and had great respect for them. “It was really amazing,” he added. “They are not a good group in government.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted, “We are urgently following up on reports from Evin prison. We are in contact with the Swiss as our security force. Iran is fully responsible for the safety of our wrongly detained citizens and they must be released immediately.”
Human Rights Watch has accused officials at the prison of using threats of torture and indefinite imprisonment, as well as lengthy interrogations and denial of medical care to prisoners.
“No security (political) prisoners were involved in today’s clash between prisoners, basically the ward for security prisoners is separate and far from the wards for thieves and those guilty of financial crimes,” the official told Tasnim news agency on condition of anonymity.
‘Clergy are getting lost’
The unrest at Evin prison comes after nearly a month of protests across Iran after a 22-year-old woman from the country’s Kurdish region died on September 16 while in custody for “inappropriate clothing”.
While the unrest doesn’t seem close to toppling the regime, the protests have expanded into strikes that have closed shops and businesses, hit the vital energy sector and fueled brazen dissent against Iran’s religious regime.
Protesters across Iran took to the streets and universities on Saturday to chant against the country’s clerical leaders.
A video released by the Norway-based Iran Human Rights Organization reportedly shows protests in Iran’s second most populous northeastern city of Mashhad, with demonstrators chanting “the clerics are getting lost” and drivers honking their horns.
Videos released by the group show a strike by shopkeepers in the northwestern Kurdish town of Amini’s home town of Sagaz. Another video on social media showed female high school students chanting “woman, life, freedom” on the streets of Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province.
Reuters could not independently verify the videos. Phone and internet services have been disrupted frequently in Iran over the past month and internet watchdog NetBlocks reported “a new major disruption” shortly before the protests began on Saturday.
In a post online, Iranian activist news agency HRANA said 240 protesters, including 32 minors, had been killed in the unrest. It said 26 members of the security forces were killed and nearly 8,000 arrested in protests in 111 cities and towns and around 73 universities.
Among the victims were teenage girls, whose deaths have become a rallying cry for further demonstrations demanding the fall of the Islamic Republic.
Protesters called for demonstrations over the death of Azra Banahi, a teenager from the Azeri ethnic minority who activists say was beaten to death by security forces in the northwestern city of Ardabil on Saturday.
Officials denied the report and news outlets close to the Revolutionary Guards cited his uncle as saying the high school student died of heart problems.
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(Reporting by the Dubai bureau, additional reporting by Lucia Mutigani, Mike Stone and Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans, Helen Popper, William Maclean, Paul Simao and Diane Croft
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