BEIRUT — A massive fire that left at least eight people dead broke out Saturday night in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, which holds hundreds of dissidents and has detained hundreds more during the past month of street protests.
Mizan, the television channel of Iran’s judiciary, initially said four prisoners from the financial crimes ward had died of asphyxiation from smoke in Ward 7 and that 61 were injured. Ten were taken to the hospital, four in critical condition, Mizan reported. Those four were pronounced dead on Monday.
Videos shared on social media showed large plumes of smoke rising from the facility, which sits at the foot of the Alborz Mountains in the capital, Tehran. The sound of automatic gunfire could be heard in some of the videos, while others showed a nearby highway filled with cars unleashing an unrelenting thrum of horns, seemingly in protest.
Iran’s semiofficial Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that the unrest began when prisoners convicted of financial crimes in two sections, Wards 7 and 8, got into an altercation, leading other prisoners to take advantage of the disarray and set fire to a workshop and a warehouse full of clothes.
Fars reported that a number of prisoners had prepared weapons to take on guards, indicating that the fire was planned. The agency said that in the midst of the chaos, some prisoners attempted to escape, entering a minefield north of the prison, which led to explosions.
Tasnim aired footage of one of its reporters touring the prison, purportedly after the fire had broken out, to prove that order had been restored. He pauses in front of a clock and points at the time, 2:06, presumably in the morning, as apparent proof that the flames were contained not long after they started.
Evin has been the site of some of the worst abuses of the Islamic Republic, with many prisoners detailing extensive psychological and physical torture inside. At least one wing of the prison is controlled by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and another wing is run by the Intelligence Ministry.
Families of inmates outside the prison were tear-gassed earlier in the day Saturday, and roads heading there were blocked by nightfall, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. An ambulance and bus were sent to Evin to transfer wounded prisoners to a hospital, the group reported.
Among the prisoners at Evin are Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman who was arrested in 2015, as well as journalists and political prisoners.
“We are following reports from Evin Prison with urgency,” State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted Saturday. “We are in contact with the Swiss as our protecting power. Iran is fully responsible for the safety of our wrongfully detained citizens, who should be released immediately.”
Videos posted online showed people in neighborhoods around Evin chanting “Death to the dictator,” while others showed riot police on motorcycles heading to the prison.
On Sunday, Namazi’s lawyer Jared Genser tweeted that Namazi was safe and has contacted his family. After the fire broke out, Genser had on Saturday appealed to President Biden to “bring American hostages home.”
Genser also said that Namazi was placed in solitary confinement after riots, purportedly “for his own safety.” For Namazi to be “back w/the #IRGC in solitary is a living nightmare,” Genser added, referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “He spent 2 years being tortured there.”
The government has cracked down against protesters since demonstrations swept the country nearly a month ago. Internet in the region has been severely disrupted in the past two weeks, along with the cellular network, leaving many in the dark and people abroad scrambling to piece together how violence is unfolding.
The protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, in the custody of the “morality police” on Sept. 16. The Iranian government’s response was quick and deadly: An order issued by the country’s highest military body on Sept. 21 gave directions to “severely confront troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries,” according to a leaked document obtained by Amnesty International and reviewed by The Washington Post.
Dehghanpisheh reported from Phoenix.