Family members and protesters gathered outside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on Sunday after a fire engulfed part of the building the previous evening, killing four inmates and injuring 61 others.
The official death toll was released by Iranian state news agencies, which said four died of smoke inhalation. Ten victims were hospitalized.
A small group of family members demanding answers about the whereabouts of their imprisoned relatives were eventually allowed to enter the prison to meet with officials. Lawyers, including prominent human rights lawyer Mostafa Neely, later reported that the prisoners were safe, but that some prisoners had been taken away.
At the beginning, loud explosions were heard fire on Saturday, followed by the sound of gunfire, leading to conflicting reports about the source of the fire and whether there was an attempted break-in.
Many of those arrested in the current wave of street protests over the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini have been taken to a prison in the Iranian capital.
The protests began with calls to end the compulsory wearing of the hijab and to remove the morality police from the streets, but the social movement has grown into a wider uprising against the entire theocratic regime.
Local media reported that protests continued across Iran on Saturday, despite attempts by authorities to claim they were largely a Western invention.
Initial reports indicated that eight inmates were injured and one shot as prison guards tackled the fire. Tear gas was used on some prisoners.
Anxious family and friends flocked to the prison on Saturday night, only to find roads blocked by police. One tearful woman who watched the events said: “It’s like God is gone, we’ve been praying for a month.”
The official state news agency reported that Tehran Governor Mohsen Mansouri said the incident began after a fight between prisoners.
“This fire was caused by a fight between some inmates in the sewing workshop,” Mansuri said. “The workshop was created to create jobs” for inmates, he added.
He said there were “clashes between inmates in the same 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 the “rebels” were separated from other inmates to de-escalate the conflict, mostly in Wards 7 and 8. Officials said the episode had nothing to do with recent unrest in the country.
The regime-aligned Fars news agency earlier claimed the explosions occurred after inmates stepped on landmines on a hill inside the prison, but later denied the report.
Iran’s most prominent female political prisoners, many foreign nationals with dual citizenship, and reformist politicians such as Mostafa Tajzadeh are held at the prison, which for decades has been known for its brutal interrogation methods and the use of solitary confinement to break the spirits of prisoners.
As protests continued across Iran over the weekend, an official parliamentary inquiry released on Sunday said Amini likely died after collapsing in a police station due to a pre-existing neurological condition. It said there was no evidence that security forces physically assaulted her body or brain. The investigation did say that the morality police should be equipped with body cameras.
He also called for the hijab law to be clarified, as the criminal code is too vague. Amini’s family refused to cooperate with the investigation on the grounds that she was not allowed to appoint doctors.
Such is the level of mistrust in Iran that the report’s findings are unlikely to quell the protests, which are now in their fifth week and have left 200 people dead, including children and security personnel.
Education Minister Youssef Nouri was also forced to disown a student who was killed by security forces in the city of Ardebil after some students refused to sing a version of the national anthem. According to him, there are no arrested students. The Coordinating Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Union Organizations issued a statement calling Nouri incompetent and oppressive: “The minister who sends his innocent students to so-called reformation and education centers not only does not understand education, but should also be seen as an investigator.”
Western officials do not believe the protests have the critical mass to spark a revolution. But US President Joe Biden said on Saturday that he was surprised by the courage of the people demonstrating in Iran. In a show of increased solidarity, Vice President Kamala Harris and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with some of the leading figures in the Iranian diaspora to discuss the protests, including actor and Amnesty UK ambassador Nazanin Baniadi.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said: “On Saturday, Biden once again interfered in Iran’s state affairs by supporting unrest, as he has done since the outbreak of the latest events in Iran.
“Given the fact that he has neither reliable advisers nor a good memory, I remind him that Iran is so strong and steadfast that it will not succumb to his harsh sanctions and empty threats.”