Iran says 4 prisoners killed, 61 injured in Evin prison fire as anti-government protests persist
Protests sparked by death of woman in police custody last month continued at several universities on Sunday
A fire at Iran's Evin prison late on Saturday killed four detainees and injured 61, state media reported, as anti-government protests sparked by a woman's death in police custody last month continued on Sunday, including at several universities.
Iranian authorities said on Saturday that a prison workshop had been set on fire "after a fight among a number of prisoners convicted of financial crimes and theft." Evin holds many detainees facing security charges, including Iranians with dual nationality.
Iran's judiciary said four of those injured in Saturday's fire were in critical condition and that those killed had died of smoke inhalation, Iranian state media reported.
Protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 have turned into one of the boldest challenges to Iran's clerical rulers since the 1979 revolution, with protesters calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic, even if the unrest does not seem close to toppling the system.
Demonstrations continued at several universities on Sunday, including in the cities of Tabriz and Rasht, to a heavy deployment of riot police. Videos posted on social media showed students at a Tehran university chanting: "Iran has turned into a big prison. Evin prison has become a slaughterhouse."
Other videos showed fires being lit at road intersections in several cities, including the capital and Piranshahr in the west of the country, where car drivers honked their horns and anti-government slogans could be heard.
Dozens of protesters were also seen in a poor neighbourhood of Tehran, before being dispersed by security forces mounted on motorbikes and shooting tear gas cannisters in the air.
Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Families of some political detainees took to social media to call on the authorities to ensure the safety of prisoners at Evin, which in 2018 was blacklisted by the U.S. government for "serious human rights abuses."
Footage of the prison that aired on state television hours after the fire ended apparently showed that calm had returned to the facility, with inmates asleep in their wards. It also showed firefighters inspecting a workshop with fire damage to the roof.
Visitors earlier denied access, activist says
Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, said that relatives of prisoners held in the women's section had gathered at the prison for routine visiting hours but that the authorities had denied them access, resulting in a standoff.
The relatives were told that the prisoners were "fine, but the phones are broken," according to Daemi.
She later posted on Twitter that some women prisoners had called their families.
The husband of Iranian journalist Niloofar Hamedi, who broke the news of Amini's hospitalization and was arrested last month, also wrote on Twitter that she had telephoned him on Sunday.
A lawyer representing an American Iranian held at Evin, Siamak Namazi, imprisoned for nearly seven years on espionage-related charges rejected by Washington as baseless, said on Sunday that Namazi had contacted his relatives.
"I am pleased to report that #SiamakNamazi has now spoken to his family. He is safe and has been moved to a secure area of Evin prison. We have no further details at this time," Jared Genser said on Twitter.
Namazi had returned to Evin on Wednesday after being granted a brief furlough, Genser said.
Several other dual national Iranians and foreign citizens are held in Evin prison mostly for security-related charges. Some Twitter posts by their friends and relatives said they had contacted their families on Sunday.
EU official calls for 'maximum transparency'
Asked about the prison fire, U.S. President Joe Biden said on Saturday he was surprised by the courage of Iranian protesters. He earlier called on Iran "to end the violence against its own citizens simply exercising their fundamental rights."
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi said Biden was inciting "chaos, terror, and destruction ... [and] should be reminded of the eternal words of the founder of the Islamic Republic who called America the great satan," referring to Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
France said on Sunday it was following with the utmost attention the situation at Evin prison, "where several French nationals are being arbitrarily detained."
"France once again reminds the Iranian authorities that they are responsible for the safety and health of our compatriots detained in Iran," a French foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement, repeating a call for their immediate release.
- Two doctor brothers are providing medical support, advice to Iranian protesters — thousands of kilometres away
Meanwhile, the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, expressed his "most serious concern" to Iran's foreign affairs minister and called for "maximum transparency on the situation" following the prison blaze and apparent violence.
Iranian authorities are responsible for the lives of "all detainees, including human rights defenders and EU nationals," Borrell said in a Twitter post on Sunday.
At least 240 killed in protests, rights groups say
Protests over Mahsa Amini's death in morality police custody last month have been met with a brutal state crackdown. Rights groups said at least 240 protesters had been killed in the anti-government protests, including 32 minors. More than 8,000 people had been arrested in 111 cities and towns, Iranian activist news agency HRANA said on Saturday. The authorities have not published a death toll.
Among the casualties have been teenage girls whose deaths have become a rallying cry for more demonstrations across the country.
Iran, which has blamed the violence on enemies at home and abroad, denies that security forces have killed protesters. State media said on Saturday that at least 26 members of the security forces had been killed by "rioters."
The clampdown on protests has attracted international condemnation, with the United States, Canada and some European countries imposing sanctions on Iranian officials and organizations they accused of being involved.
With files from The Associated Press