© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold signs at a demonstration, following the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died last week in Tehran after being arrested by Iranian morality police, in Berlin, Germany September 24, 2022. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Sunday that four prisoners had been killed and 61 injured in a fire at Tehran’s Evin prison a day earlier, with state television airing video apparently showing that calm had returned to the facility.
The judiciary said four of those injured in Saturday’s fire were in critical condition and those killed had died of smoke inhalation, Iranian state media reported.
The fire at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison came amid ongoing unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s morality police a month ago.
The protests have turned into one of the boldest challenges to the clerical leadership since the 1979 revolution, and have been met with a brutal crackdown.
Before the authorities published the death toll from the fire, families of some political detainees took to social media to call on the authorities to ensure the safety of prisoners at Evin, which in 2018 was blacklisted by the U.S. government for “serious human rights abuses”.
Iranian authorities said on Saturday that a prison workshop had been set on fire “after a fight among a number of prisoners convicted of financial crimes and theft”. Evin holds many detainees facing security charges, including Iranians with dual nationality.
The footage of Evin aired on state television hours later showed firefighters inspecting a workshop with fire damage to the roof. It also showed inmates in their wards apparently “sleeping as calm has been restored”.
Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, said that relatives of prisoners held in the women’s section had gathered at the prison for routine visiting hours, but that the authorities had denied them access, resulting in a standoff.
The relatives were told that the prisoners were “fine, but the phones are broken”, according to Daemi.
“When the families said they would not leave until they (prisoners) call, give them mobile phones to call, security guards confronted the families,” she tweeted.
In the footage broadcast on state television, a prison official said inmates had been allowed to contact their families.
A lawyer representing an American Iranian held at Evin, Siamak Namazi, imprisoned for nearly seven years on espionage-related charges rejected by Washington as baseless, said on Sunday that Namazi had indeed contacted his relatives.
Several other dual national Iranians and foreign citizens are held in Evin prison mostly for security-related charges.
“I am pleased to report that #SiamakNamazi has now spoken to his family. He is safe and has been moved to a secure area of Evin Prison. We have no further details at this time,” Jared Genser said in a tweet.
Namazi had returned to Evin on Wednesday after being granted a brief furlough, Genser said.
Asked about the prison fire, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters during a campaign trip on Saturday to Portland, Oregon that the Iranian government was “so oppressive” and that he was surprised by the courage of the Iranian protesters.
Iran’s foreign ministry said Biden had interfered in state matters by showing support for the anti-government protests. The authorities have responded with a brutal crackdown.
Rights groups said at least 240 protesters had been killed in the anti-government protests, including 32 minors. Over 8,000 people had been arrested in 111 cities and towns, Iranian activist news agency HRANA said on Saturday.
Among the casualties have been teenage girls whose deaths have become a rallying cry for more demonstrations across the country.
Iran, which has blamed the violence on enemies at home and abroad, deny security forces have killed protesters. State media said on Saturday at least 26 members of the security forces had been killed by “rioters”.
The protests have attracted international condemnation, with the United States, Canada and some European countries imposing sanctions on Iranian officials and organisations “involved in the clampdown on protesters”.
“On Saturday … Biden interfered in Iran’s state matters by supporting the riots … In recent days, the U.S. administration has tried desperately to inflame unrest in Iran under various excuses,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said, ISNA reported.
The protests mark one of the boldest challenges to clerical rule since the 1979 revolution, with demonstrations spreading across the country and widespread calls for the downfall the Islamic Republic, even if the unrest does not seem close to toppling the system.