CAIRO (AP) – A large fire at a notorious prison housing political prisoners and anti-government activists in Iran’s capital injured at least nine people but was extinguished after hours and no inmates escaped, state media reported Sunday.
Flames and smoke rising from Tehran’s Evin prison were widely visible on Saturday night as anti-government protests across the country sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody entered their fifth week. In videos online, gunshots and explosions could be heard on the prison grounds.
State media said the fire broke out after a fight between inmates, in an apparent attempt to distance events there from the ongoing protests. Hundreds are in Evin, where human rights groups have reported repeated abuse of prisoners.
State television on Sunday aired a video of the aftermath of the fire, showing charred walls and ceilings in a room said to be the top floor of the prison’s sewing workshop.
“This fire was caused by a fight between several prisoners in a sewing workshop,” said Tehran Governor Mohsen Mansouri. “The workshop was established to create jobs” for the prisoners, he said.
Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported on Saturday that there had been a clash between inmates in one ward and prison staff, citing a senior security official. The official said inmates set fire to a warehouse full of prison uniforms, causing the fire. He said that the “rioters” were separated from other prisoners in order to de-escalate the conflict.
The official said the “situation is completely under control” and firefighters are putting out the flames. Later, Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi said that peace had returned to the prison and that the unrest was not related to the protests that have gripped the country for four weeks.
IRNA later reported that nine people were injured, without elaborating. He posted a video showing burning debris strewn around the building and firefighters spraying embers.
The American Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that an “armed conflict” broke out inside the prison walls. It is said that the shots were first heard in Ward 7 of the prison. This account could not be immediately verified.
A video of the fire was circulated on the Internet. Videos showed gunshots ringing out as smoke billowed into the sky as alarms sounded. Soon a protest broke out in the street, with many shouting “Death to the dictator!” — a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and burning tires, the videos show.
Witnesses said police blocked roads and highways to Evin and that at least three loud explosions were heard from the area. Traffic was heavy along major highways near the prison, which is located in the north of the capital, and many honked their horns to show solidarity with the protests.
Emergency police were seen riding motorbikes towards the building, as were ambulances and fire engines. Witnesses reported that the internet was blocked in the area.
The prison fire came as protesters stepped up anti-government demonstrations along main streets and at universities in some cities across Iran on Saturday. Human rights monitors reported hundreds of dead, including children, as the movement entered its fourth week.
The protests erupted after public outcry over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. She was arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
President Joe Biden, on a trip to Oregon, said Iran’s “government is so repressive” and he has “a tremendous amount of respect for the people marching in the streets.”
Evin prison, where inmates face security-related charges and includes dual nationals, has been accused by rights groups of inmate abuse. The facility has long been known for holding political prisoners as well as those with ties to the West that Iran has used as bargaining chips in international negotiations.
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