Iran Prison Fire Death Toll Rises To Eight As Anti-Regime Protests Continue

Iran's judiciary has raised the death toll for a fire at Tehran's notorious Evin prison, saying that at least eight prisoners were killed, as nationwide protests continue over the death in custody of a young woman arrested for improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic scarf.

Details still remain scarce over the fire at Evin prison, which also houses political prisoners and anti-government protesters.

The judiciary's Mizan news agency announced the new toll on October 17, saying the prisoners had succumbed to their injuries the previous day.

It said all those dead had been held on theft charges. Mizan described the incident as a “fight between inmates and a fire," though it offered no evidence to support the claim. Activists outside of Iran say they remain skeptical of the Iranian government's claims.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi accused Washington of inciting chaos after U.S. President Joe Biden voiced support for the five-week old protests that have rocked Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.

State media originally reported that nine people were injured but the Judiciary website said on October 16 that four inmates had died of smoke inhalation and 61 others were injured. It said all four who died were in prison on robbery convictions.

Mizan added that 10 inmates were hospitalized, with four of them in serious condition. Some prisoners had tried to escape but failed, the website said.

An RFE/RL reporter was told that a riot began on October 15 in Ward 7 of the prison, which is famous for holding political prisoners and was blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2018 for being a place with "serious rights abuses."

The ward is next to another area where those detained during the unrest over the death of Amini are being held.

On October 16, state-run TV aired video of what it said was the fire's aftermath, showing scorched walls and ceilings in a room it said was the upper floor of a sewing workshop at the prison.

Tehran Governor Mohsen Mansuri said the fire was caused by a “fight between some prisoners" in the workshop.

Many Iranian social media posts challenged state media claims over the cause of the fire and apparent explosions at the prison.

The European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell expressed “most serious concern” and called for “maximum transparency on the situation” following the prison blaze.

Borrell said in a tweet on October 16 that Iranian authorities are responsible for the lives of "all detainees, including human rights defenders and EU nationals.”

Some prisoners had called their families on October 16, relatives and lawyers said.

Prominent filmmaker Jafar Panahi managed to call his wife from Evin on October 16 to let her know that he and his fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof are fine and that authorities had used tear gas during the unrest, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported.

A lawyer representing Siamak Namazi, an American-Iranian held at Evin said on October 16 that Namazi had contacted his family.

Namazi “is safe and has been moved to a secure area of Evin prison,” lawyer Jared Genser said in a tweet.

Namazi has been sentenced for more than seven years on espionage-related charges rejected by Washington as baseless.

Several other dual-national Iranians and foreign citizens are being held in Evin prison, mostly on dubious security-related charges.

Speaking in the western U.S. state of Oregon on October 15, Biden said he was surprised by the courage of the people taking to the streets in protest in Iran.

Biden said the Iranian “government is so oppressive” and that he had an “enormous amount of respect for people marching in the streets.”

Tehran said the remarks amounted to interference in Iran’s internal affairs.

President Raisi accused Biden of “inciting chaos, terror and the destruction of another country.”

"The enemy's plot must be countered by effective measures to resolve people's problems," Raisi added, according to a presidency statement released on October 16.

Iran has been rocked by nationwide protests -- one of the most serious challenges to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution -- sparked by Amini's death on September 16.

Amini was detained by morality police for "inappropriate attire" with regard to her head scarf, or hijab. Eyewitnesses say Amini, who comes from the country's Kurdish region, was beaten while in custody, but the authorities gave the official cause of death as "underlying diseases."

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa