Iran prison fire toll doubles as protest tensions surge

5. Iran
Damage caused by a fire at the Evin prison, in the northwest of the Iranian capital Tehran on October 16, 2022. (Photos: MIZAN/AFP)

PARIS — Eight Iranian inmates were killed in a fire that raged through Tehran’s Evin prison, the judiciary said Monday, doubling the official toll from the blaze that further stoked tensions after a month of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.  اضافة اعلان

Authorities in the Islamic republic have blamed the fire late Saturday on “riots and clashes” among prisoners, but human rights groups said they doubted the official version of events and feared the real toll could be even higher.

The judiciary authority’s website Mizan Online said Monday that four Evin prison inmates injured in the fire had died in hospital, after reporting the previous day an initial toll of four dead from smoke inhalation.

Gunshots and explosions were heard during the dramatic blaze from inside the complex, according to social media footage, and state media later broadcast images of parts of the prison gutted by the flames.

Iranian authorities have accused “thugs” of torching a prison clothing depot and reported clashes between prisoners, and then between inmates and guards who intervened to put an end to the violence.

Judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei said Monday that the fire was “a crime committed by a few elements linked to the enemy”.

But Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR) said it “rejects” the official account of clashes between non-political prisoners unrelated to the protests, citing the “long history of concealing facts” in the Islamic republic.

“The number of those killed in Evin Prison is probably higher than the official count,” it added.

Activists noted further confusion when state television announced Sunday that 40 people had been killed in the prison, only to correct this back to the initial toll of four just minutes later.

IHR said many prisoners had been transferred to Gohardasht prison in Karaj, west of Tehran in the aftermath of the fire.

‘Appalled by conditions’

The fire came after four weeks of protests over the death of 22-year-old Amini, following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women.

The wave of demonstrations has turned into a major anti-government movement, confronting Iran’s clerical leadership with one of its biggest challenges since the ousting of the shah in 1979.

At least 122 people have been killed in the crackdown on the Amini protests, and at least 93 more died in separate clashes in Zahedan, Sistan-Baluchestan province, according to an updated toll published by IHR.

These tolls include 27 children who have been killed, it added.

Protests were held Sunday in the aftermath of the Evin fire, including at the Tehran and Shariati universities where women chanted “we are all Mahsa!”

There were more overnight rallies including in the capital’s Ekbatan district where residents shouted “death to the dictator”, social media footage showed.

Hundreds of the protesters arrested in recent weeks have been sent to Evin, infamous for the ill-treatment of political prisoners, which also holds foreign detainees and thousands jailed on criminal charges.

Freedom of expression activist Hossein Ronaghi called his mother from Evin, where he has been held since last month, and “could hardly speak and could only say a few words,” his brother Hassan wrote on Twitter.

His family says he has suffered ill-treatment in custody and has fractured both legs.

“We are appalled by the conditions activist Hossein Ronaghi is subjected to and must be freed. He has been dealing with torture, a hunger strike and Evin’s fire,” said campaign group Article 19.

Prominent Iranian lawyer Saeid Dehghan wrote on Twitter that a total of 19 lawyers who had been working to defend those arrested had themselves been detained.

‘Cannot close our eyes’

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc expected “maximum transparency on the situation” at Evin.

The EU agreed to level new sanctions, endorsed by its foreign ministers Monday, targeting the morality police, Information Minister Eisa Zarepour and the cyber division of its Revolutionary Guards, over Amini’s death and repression of subsequent protests.

They will be subject to EU visa bans and asset freezes.

“When you see these terrible pictures of the fire in the prison, when you see that peaceful people, women, men and, increasingly, young people and schoolchildren continue to be brutally beaten then we cannot and will not close our eyes to this,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Naser Kanani said Tehran would give an “immediate response” to the sanctions. The US, Britain and Canada have already announced sanctions against Iran over rights violations.

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