The death toll from a fire at Tehran’s Evin prison has risen to eight people, Iran’s judiciary said Monday.
The fire erupted Saturday amid ongoing protests, now in their fifth week, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman held by the country’s morality police for failing to properly cover her hair with a hijab.
Iranian state media reported that the blaze was extinguished after several hours, and no detainees escaped.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said, “We are following reports from Evin Prison with urgency. We are in contact with the Swiss as our protecting power. Iran is fully responsible for the safety of our wrongfully detained citizens, who should be released immediately.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said Saturday, the Iranian “government is so oppressive” and that he had an “enormous amount of respect for people marching in the streets.”
Evin Prison, which holds detainees facing security-related charges and includes dual-national citizens, has been charged by rights groups with abusing inmates. The facility has long been known for holding political prisoners as well as those with ties to the West who have been used by Iran as bargaining chips in international negotiations.
Nahid Delili, the wife of Shahab Delili, a dual-nationality prisoner in Evin, told VOA’s Persian service that she talked to her husband and that he is healthy.
In online videos, gunshots and explosions could be heard in the area of the prison.
Video of the fire circulated online, including shots ringing out as plumes of smoke rose into the sky amid the sound of an alarm. Soon after, the videos showed a protest breaking out on the street outside the prison, with many chanting “Death to the Dictator!” — a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and burning tires.
The videos appeared to show projectiles being launched into the prison by security forces, followed by the sound of at least two explosions. It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of rounds Iranian security forces used in the incident.
Traffic was heavy along major freeways near the prison, which is in the north of the capital. Many people honked to show their solidarity with the protests.
Authorities have attempted to distance the events at the prison from the ongoing protests, while state media has offered conflicting accounts of the violence.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency, citing one senior security official, had reported Saturday that inmates in one ward fought with prison personnel. The official said prisoners set fire to a warehouse full of prison uniforms.
The security official said the “rioters” were separated from other prisoners to de-escalate the conflict.
Later, Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi said that the unrest was not related to the protests which have swept the country following Amini’s death. Rights groups say more than 200 protesters have been killed since demonstrations swept through Iran September 17, with Iranian authorities saying more than two dozen security force members have also been killed in the unrest.
But Iranian social media posts challenged state media accounts of the cause of the fire and apparent explosions at the prison. A former inmate of Evin and rights activist Atena Daemi said in a tweet Sunday that normally all prisoners are sent to their wards and the workshops are closed by sunset.
The video broadcast by state TV in the fire’s aftermath showed scorched walls and ceilings in a room it said was the upper floor of a sewing workshop at the prison.
“This fire was caused by a fight between some prisoners” in the sewing workshop, said Tehran Gov. Mohsen Mansouri. “The workshop was set up to create jobs” for prisoners, he said.
VOA’s Persian service contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters and The Associated Press.