Iran prison fire death toll rises as protests continue

All the victims were being held in a section of the prison designated for prisoners of robbery-related crimes, the judiciary said.

 A picture obtained from the Iranian Mizan News Agency on October 16, 2022 shows damage caused by a fire in the notorious Evin prison, northwest of the Iranian capital Tehran. (photo credit: KOOSHA MAHSHID FALAHI/MIZAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
A picture obtained from the Iranian Mizan News Agency on October 16, 2022 shows damage caused by a fire in the notorious Evin prison, northwest of the Iranian capital Tehran.
(photo credit: KOOSHA MAHSHID FALAHI/MIZAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Eight prisoners died as a result of a fire at Tehran's Evin prison over the weekend, Iran's judiciary said on Monday, doubling the death toll from a blaze that has increased pressure on the government as it struggles to contain mass protests.

The fate of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman who died in custody on Sept. 16 after she was apprehended by Iran's morality police for "inappropriate attire," unleashed a wave of protests that spread rapidly and to all layers of society.

The unrest has turned into one of the boldest challenges to Iran's clerical rulers since the 1979 revolution, with protesters calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic, even if the protests do not seem close to toppling the system.

Iran's judiciary said the blaze on Saturday evening was started by prisoners in a workshop after a fight, and that those killed had died of smoke inhalation. All were from a section of the prison for inmates jailed for robbery-related crimes, it said.

Evin Prison, which in 2018 was blacklisted by the US government for "serious human rights abuses," also holds political prisoners and many detainees facing security charges, including Iranians with dual nationality.

 A general view of a warehouse after the fire in Evin prison in Tehran, Iran October 17, 2022.  (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS) A general view of a warehouse after the fire in Evin prison in Tehran, Iran October 17, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS)

Iran's top judge Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei blamed the fire on "agents of Iran's enemy" on Monday, while Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said such an event could have happened in any country.

Videos and posts on social media showed dozens of Iranian political prisoners being transferred from Evin to other jails. Relatives said they did not know why they are being moved and are concerned for their safety.

Iran vs the world

Iran has accused countries who have expressed support for the protests of meddling in their internal affairs, including President Ebrahim Raisi, who on Sunday blamed his US counterpart for inciting "chaos, terror, and destruction" in Iran.

People gather  next to a burning motorcycle in the Iranian capital of Tehran on October 8, 2022. (credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)People gather next to a burning motorcycle in the Iranian capital of Tehran on October 8, 2022. (credit: AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

One traffic police officer was shot on Monday in Saravan in southeastern Iran by what the province's police commander said were "terrorists" armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

The sounds of gunfire were frequently heard in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, according to audio files that human rights group Hengaw received.

US President Joe Biden and the European Union are among those to have criticized Tehran's crackdown on protesters; on Monday EU ministers were set to impose travel bans and freeze the assets of some 15 Iranians involved.

"We will launch ... a sanctions package today that will hold accountable those who are responsible for the brutal crimes against women, youths and men," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters in Luxembourg.

"Amongst those listed is the so-called morality police - morality police being a misnomer, actually, if you see what crimes are committed there," she said.

 Kurdish protests ignite a country

The protests, which started at Amini's funeral in her Kurdish hometown of Saqez, spread rapidly to cities and provinces across Iran, a large country of more than 80 million people.

Demonstrations resumed early Monday in the central city of Yazd and several other cities, including Piranshahr in the northwest and Tehran.

The widely followed activist Tasvir1500 Twitter account carried a video showing people setting tires on fire in the streets and calling for the death of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Reuters could not independently verify the videos.

Iran tries, and fails, to regain control

Much of the crackdown by security forces has focused on the northwest where most of Iran's estimated 10 million Kurds live, but the protests have swept other areas home to ethnic minorities with long-standing grievances against the state.

Iran's religious leaders have said the unrest is part of a breakaway uprising by the Kurdish minority, threatening the nation's unity rather than its clerical rule.

Iran has deployed the Basij militia, voluntary military troops which have been at the forefront of repressing popular unrest, but they have failed to contain the protests.

The elite Revolutionary Guards, who have not taken part in the crackdown, began military exercises on Monday.

Rights groups said at least 240 protesters had been killed, including 32 minors. Over 8,000 people had been arrested in 111 cities and towns, Iranian activist news agency HRANA said on Saturday. The authorities have not published a death toll.

Iran, which has blamed the violence on enemies at home and abroad, denies security forces have killed protesters. State media said on Saturday at least 26 members of the security forces had been killed by "rioters."