Eight Iranian inmates were killed in a fire that raged through Tehran’s Evin prison, the judiciary said Monday, doubling the official toll from the blaze that further stoked tensions one month into protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.
Authorities in the Islamic republic have blamed the fire late Saturday on “riots and clashes” among prisoners, but human rights groups said they doubted the official version of events and also feared the real toll could be even higher.
The judiciary authority’s website Mizan Online said Monday that four Evin prison inmates injured in the fire had died in hospital, after reporting the previous day an initial toll of four dead from smoke inhalation.
Gunshots and explosions were heard during the dramatic blaze from inside the complex, according to social media footage, while state media broadcast images of the aftermath with areas gutted by the flames.
Iranian authorities have accused “thugs” of torching a prison clothing depot and reported clashes between prisoners, and then between inmates and guards who intervened to put an end to the violence.
Hundreds of the protesters arrested in recent weeks have been sent to Evin, infamous for the ill-treatment of political prisoners, which also holds foreign detainees and thousands jailed on criminal charges.
The official IRNA news agency, citing a Tehran prosecutor, said the clashes had “nothing to do with the recent unrest”, while Mizan said that all those who died had been convicted of robbery.
But Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR) said it “rejects” the official account, given the “long history of concealing facts” in the Islamic republic.
It said it had “received reports that special forces were deployed to incite prisoners and set the grounds for a crackdown” and called for a UN-backed international investigation to establish the facts.
The fire came after four weeks of protests over the death of 22-year-old Amini, following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women.
The wave of demonstrations has turned into a major anti-government movement, confronting Iran’s clerical leadership with one of its biggest challenges since the ousting of the shah in 1979.
At least 122 people have been killed in the crackdown on the Amini protests, and at least 93 more died in separate clashes in Zahedan, Sistan-Baluchestan province, according to an updated toll published by IHR.
More protests were held Sunday, including at the Tehran and Shariati universities where women chanted “we are all Mahsa!”
There were more overnight rallies including in the capital’s Ekbatan district where residents shouted “death to the dictator!”, social media footage showed.
Iranian rights activist Atena Daemi, herself a long-time inmate of Evin, wrote on Twitter that in the early hours of Sunday several buses and ambulances were seen leaving the facility.
She said some prisoners in Ward 8, which houses political detainees, had been transferred to another jail.
Activists noted further confusion when state television announced Sunday that 40 people had been killed in the prison, only to correct this back to the initial toll of four just minutes later.
Evin prison holds foreigners such as French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah and US citizen Siamak Namazi, whose family said he was taken back into custody days ago after a temporary release. Namazi’s US attorney Jared Genser said he had spoken to his family, and that he was unharmed.
Supporters of Austrian prisoner Massud Mossaheb said he was suffering after inhaling smoke and tear gas, writing on Twitter that “he can barely speak… He is in big distress”.
‘Appalled by conditions’
Freedom of expression activist Hossein Ronaghi called his mother from Evin, where he has been held since last month, and “could hardly speak and could only say a few words,” his brother Hassan wrote on Twitter.
His family says he has suffered ill-treatment in custody and has fractured both legs.
“We are appalled by the conditions activist Hossein Ronaghi is subjected to and must be freed. He has been dealing with torture, a hunger strike and Evin’s fire,” said campaign group Article 19.
Prominent Iranian lawyer Saeid Dehghan wrote on Twitter that a total of 19 lawyers who had been working to defend those arrested had themselves been detained.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc expected “maximum transparency on the situation” at Evin.
The EU has agreed to level new sanctions, expected to be endorsed by its foreign ministers Monday.
Diplomats told AFP that the sanctions list, agreed by EU ambassadors ahead of the ministers’ meeting, contains 11 Iranian officials and four entities. They will be subject to EU visa bans and asset freezes.
Among those to be targeted is “the so-called morality police,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.
“When you see these terrible pictures of the fire in the prison, when you see that peaceful people, women, men and, increasingly, young people and schoolchildren continue to be brutally beaten then we cannot and will not close our eyes to this.”