Family members and protesters demand answers over blaze that state media reports left 61 injured
Family members and protesters gathered outside the notorious Evin prison in Tehran on Sunday after a fire engulfed some of the building the night before, leading to the deaths of at least four prisoners and injuring a further 61.
The official death toll was released by Iranian state news agencies, which said the four died from smoke inhalation. Ten of the injured were hospitalized.
But families of the prisoners, including some of the most high-profile political dissidents in Iran, said the real death toll was likely to be higher and accused security officials of starting the fire with pellet rounds, and using teargas. Many of the prisoners were beaten.
A small group of family members, demanding answers about the whereabouts of their incarcerated relatives, were eventually allowed to enter the prison to meet officials. Lawyers, including the prominent human rights lawyer Mostafa Nili, later reported the female prisoners were safe but that as many as 50 prisoners had been transferred to Rajaee Shahr prison.
Loud explosions were heard at the start of the fire on Saturday, followed by the sound of gunfire, leading to conflicting reports about the source of the blaze.
Many of those arrested in the current spate of street protests over the death in custody of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, were taken to the jail in the Iranian capital.
The protests started with calls for an end to the compulsory hijab and the withdrawal of the morality police from the streets, but the social movement has grown into a broader rebellion against the entire theocratic regime.
Local media showed protests had continued on Saturday and Sunday across Iran despite attempts by the authorities to claim they are largely a fiction of the west. At Tehran University students chanted “Tehran has become a detention centre, Evin has become a slaughterhouse.”
Anxious relations and friends had flocked to the prison on Saturday night but found the roads blocked by police. One tearful woman watching the events said: “It’s like God doesn’t exist any more, we’ve been praying for a month.” On Sunday some of the prisoners were able in short calls to ring relatives to say they were safe.
The official state news agency reported the Tehran governor, Mohsen Mansouri, as saying the incident started after a fight broke out among prisoners.
“This fire was caused by a fight between some prisoners in a sewing workshop,” Mansouri said. “The workshop was set up to create jobs” for prisoners, he added.
Officials claimed the episode had nothing to do with the recent unrest in the country.
But a relative told the Guardian: “The resistance and protest had reached inside the Evin prison and to crush the resistance the security officials stopped the prisoners and quarrelled with them and then to cover their tracks they ignited the fire. I am pretty sure that they are killing prisoners.”
They challenged the suggestion the fire started in the sewing workshop, saying it was ignited well after the workshop would have been closed for the evening.
Earlier the Fars news agency, which is close to the regime, claimed the explosions occurred after prisoners stepped on landmines on a hill inside the prison, but this account was later denied.
Iran’s most famous female political prisoners and many foreign dual nationals as well as reformist politicians such as Mostafa Tajzadeh are held in the jail that for decades has been known for its brutal interrogation techniques and use of solitary confinement to break the spirit of captives.
Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said: “The fire in Evin prison may be out, our attention to the people held there and their human rights cannot and will not stop. The Iranian government bears responsibility for all those imprisoned there – including many political prisoners and demonstrators.”
As protests continued across Iran over the weekend an official inquiry by parliament published on Sunday said Amini had probably died after collapsing inside the police station due to a pre-existing neurological condition. It said there was no evidence of physical blows to her body or brain by the security forces. The inquiry did say the morality police needed to be equipped with body cameras, and the law on the wearing of the hijab clarified.
It also called for the law on the hijab to be clarified since the penal code is too vague. The Amini family refused to cooperate with the inquiry on the basis that it had not been allowed to appoint any doctors.
Such are the levels of distrust within Iran it is unlikely the report’s findings will quell the protests that are into their fifth week and have led to as many as 200 deaths, including children and security officials.
The minister of education, Yousef Nouri, was also forced to deny a student Asra Panahi had been killed by security forces in the city of Ardabil after some students refused to sing a version of the national anthem. The authorities said she had poisoned herself. The death of a second student Nima Shafiqdoos was attributed to poisoning by a dog bite.
The Coordinating Council of Trade Union Organisations of Iranian Educators issued a statement describing Nouri as incompetent and repressive: “A minister who sends his innocent students to the so-called reform and education centres not only has no understanding of education, but should be seen as an interrogator.”
Western officials do not think the protests have the critical mass to prompt a revolution. But the US president, Joe Biden, said on Saturday he was surprised by the courage of the people demonstrating in Iran. The vice-president, Kamala Harris, and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in a sign of increased solidarity met some of the leading figures in the Iranian diaspora to discuss the protests, including the actor and Amnesty UK ambassador Nazanin Boniadi.
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, said: “On Saturday, Biden interfered for the umpteenth time in Iran’s state matters by supporting the riots as he has done ever since the outbreak of recent developments in Iran.
“Given the fact he neither enjoys trusted advisers nor a good memory, I remind him that Iran is so strong and steadfast that it would not give in to his cruel sanctions and idle threats.”