Eight people have died and at least 61 were injured in a series of fires in Iran’s Evin Prison. The first four fatalities were reported on the night of October 15, the evening of the fire. Another four deaths were reported a week later from unclear causes, according to the Iranian Judiciary. 

Iran’s infamous Evin Prison is known to be where most political prisoners are held, including dual nationals, journalists, and activists. It has been the prison for political crime since before the revolution in 1979 and is colloquially referred to as “Evin University” due to its vast holding of academics and intellectuals. According to Aljazeera, the prison has been scrutinized by human rights groups for “serious human rights abuses” specifically toward political prisoners, despite there being inmates of other crimes. This treatment spans from threats of torture to the 1988 executions of “thousands of political prisoners,” according to Human Rights Watch. 

The Iranian government explained that the fire erupted during an attempted prison break-turned-fight between the inmates. According to the government’s judiciary, their sewing workshop in a separate building was caught on fire by the fleeing prisoners. Fars News Agency, a news channel with close ties to Iranian intelligence, confirmed the attempted escape, then retracted its statement merely hours later. Although satellite images showed that there was fire damage in the sewing workshop, it showed that one main fire had taken place near ward 7. Inmates from the neighboring ward who chose to remain anonymous explained that the sewing workshop closes in the evenings and would not have been accessible to the inmates at the time of the fire.

Two days before the fire at Evin, a riot police squad arrived at the prison. According to the Washington Post, inmates said that the unit banged on cell doors and yelled “God is Greatest.” The Iranian judiciary has not yet confirmed or denied this allegation. The prisoners reacted with anti-government chants such as “Death to Khamenei.” Between the hours of 7 and 8 pm, prisoners in ward 8 heard gunshots coming from ward 7, the financial crimes ward. The relative of an inmate explained that suddenly, the prison became “like a warzone,” with gunshots, shouting, and prisoners clashing with police and security guards. Inmates and activists explain that at this point, the fires had started and fumes filled up the neighboring wards. 

An anonymous inmate told Reuters that they saw the inmates being shot with metal pellets and tear-gassed, causing the ward 8 prisoners to try to break down their door “to help the other inmates.” Arash Johari, an activist in ward 8, told his family that the fumes were suffocating and they had to “smash through the gates” in order to survive. In the prison yard, inmates were shot and hit with batons. Prisoners report being hit in the head and face, such as Johari who told The Washington Post he “had blurred vision and his head was bleeding.”

The son of a former president, Mehdi Rafsanjani, has been at Evin serving a sentence for financial corruption, but leaves from Wednesday to Friday on weekly furlough. His brother Yasser Hashemi Rafsanjani posted on his social media that this particular week, Mehdi had been told not to return until after Saturday. 

Smoke coming from Evin Prison, October 16.
Photo from Twitter/Vahid Online

An anonymous anti-government activist expressed that they believe it was a planned crackdown to assert power, and that this was the reason for the riot squad’s arrival. According to Iran International, witnesses agree that the incident was a staged prison break to “kill prisoners.” Currently, injured inmates have been denied medical treatment, including x-rays or even critical surgeries.

Featured photo by: Human Rights Watch

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