A fire that burned through part of Iran’s notorious Evin Prison damaged one of the largest buildings at the complex, according to satellite photos analyzed Monday, as authorities raised the death toll in the still-murky incident, saying at least eight prisoners were killed.
What happened on Saturday night at the prison — which houses both inmates convicted on criminal charges to political prisoners held by the country’s competing intelligence arms — remains unclear. Online videos purport to show chaotic scenes with a prison siren wailing as flames rise from the complex, the apparent crackle of gunfire and people screaming: “Death to the dictator!”
The fire erupted as nationwide anti-government protests triggered by the death of a young woman after being detained by the country’s morality police entered a fifth week.
Tensions in Iran have escalated to a point unseen since the mass demonstrations that accompanied the country’s 2009 Green Movement protests. A fire at one of Tehran’s most heavily guarded facilities potentially raises the stakes for those continuing to rally against the government and the mandatory headscarf, or hijab, for women after the death of Mahsa Amini.
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Satellite photos taken Sunday by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by The Associated Press show the roof burning away from a large building that’s part of the northern section of Evin Prison.
The Iran Prison Atlas, a project by the California-based rights group United for Iran, which collects data on Iranian prisons and prisoners, had previously identified the structure’s wards as housing prisoners convicted on fraud and theft cases — not those held on political charges. However, the Iran Prison Atlas has warned that wards have changed over the years.
The reformist newspaper Etemad on Monday quoted Mostafa Nili, a lawyer for some political prisoners at Evin, as identifying one of the affected areas as Ward 8. He described those imprisoned there as political prisoners serving sentences handed down by the courts and others convicted on financial charges.
He also said political prisoners in Ward 4 of the prison inhaled tear gas during the incident. The semiofficial Tasnim news agency also said Evin’s Wards 6 and 7 sustained damage as well. Iranian state television rushed a camera crew to the site early Sunday morning, filming a reporter walking through one ward with prisoners asleep in bunks as firefighters doused the embers of the blaze. The TV described the fire as having taken place at a sewing workshop.
Iran’s judiciary on Monday raised the death toll from the blaze to eight.
Authorities have blamed “rioters” for setting the blaze, though they haven’t described what measures they took against the prisoners on site. Video of the fire purports to show people on the roof of the building, tossing liquid on the flames at first. Apparent gunfire echoes through other videos, including what appears to be some sort of ordinance being lobbed into the prison complex, followed by the sound of an explosion.
As the fire grew larger, one video includes voices shouting: “Death to the dictator!” That cry against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has become common at night in Tehran amid the protests, even though it carries the risk of a death sentence in a closed-door Revolutionary Court.
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The protests erupted after public outrage over the death of 22-year-old Amini in police custody. She was arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code. Iran’s government insists Amini was not mistreated in police custody, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained.
Evin Prison, which holds detainees facing security-related charges — including dual 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.
Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers were examining imposing sanctions on Iranian officials over their suspected role in the crackdown against the protests. They were expected to agree to slap travel bans and asset freezes.
“It’s very important that we sanction the ones that are responsible for atrocities against Iranian people, the young people who are demonstrating for their fundamental rights,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told reporters in Luxembourg, urging for “a strong, strong stand here.”
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Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the EU “must send a signal that this is not acceptable.”
Later, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said the EU would target 11 officials and four “entities,” which are often security agencies, government departments, companies or banks. She did not provide details.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the EU “cannot and will not close our eyes” to the crackdown in Iran. She said the bloc’s foreign ministers “will launch a further specific, sanctions package that holds to account those responsible.”
Iran’s morality police will be on the list, she said but declined to say how many individuals and entities will be sanctioned ahead of formal decisions.
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“It is also clear that, if this regime continues to pummel its population in this way, there will be further targeted sanctions packages against those responsible,” she said.