Fire and Chaos at Evin Prison

A large fire broke out at Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison on October 15. Flames and thick smoke could be seen for miles. Eight prisoners died and dozens were injured, according to the judiciary. Hundreds of security forces, including the Basij paramilitary, were reportedly deployed around the prison. They fired tear gas in at least one prison ward, according to a lawyer who represents political prisoners held at Evin. Nearby residents heard gunfire and explosions. 

Protestors gathered outside the prison and chanted “Death to the dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Families of prisoners also gathered outside of the grounds to find out if their relatives were safe. Police blocked the roads leading to the prison, which caused massive traffic jams.

State media offered conflicting reports about how the fire started. Iranian officials said that it erupted after a fight between inmates at a sewing workshop in a ward for violent criminals and people charged with financial crimes. 

After the blaze was put out, state media released photos of a charred building, and state television claimed that calm had been restored. But videos and photos posted to social media showed a more chaotic scene. Some prisoners were able to call or message their relatives to let them know that they were safe.

The United States expressed concern about the safety of Americans–Siamak Namazi and Emad Sharghi–imprisoned at Evin. “We are following reports from Evin Prison,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price tweeted. “We are in contact with the Swiss as our protecting power. Iran is fully responsible for the safety of our wrongfully detained citizens, who should be released immediately.” The two Americans later contacted family to say that they were unharmed. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian that Tehran was responsible for the safety of E.U. nationals. 

The fire broke out during the fifth week of nationwide protests sparked by the death in detention of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd, who was picked up for “inappropriate dress.” President Ebrahim Raisi has blamed the unrest on the United States and Israel. Judiciary chief Mohsen Ejei blamed “the enemy’s agents” for the unrest. The United States has repeatedly expressed support for the protests. “The Iranian government is so oppressive, you can’t have anything but an enormous amount of respect for those people marching in the streets,” President Biden said on October 15. “I was surprised by the courage of the people and women taking to the street–taking off their head scarf. It’s really been amazing.”

Raisi condemned Biden’s remarks on the protests. “The comments of the American President in support of chaos, assassination and insecurity in Iran once again proved the falseness of the claim to support human rights, security and peace and gave meaning to the title of the Great Devil,” Raisi said in a cabinet meeting on October 16. “The enemy seeks to induce despair and hopelessness by the recent events and we must take effective measures to advance affairs and solve people’s problems by confronting this conspiracy by the enemies.”

Evin Prison is a high security facility in north Tehran. It opened during the monarchy in 1972. In 2018, the United States sanctioned Evin Prison for “serious human rights abuses,” including torture. In 2021, opposition group Edaalate Ali or “Ali’s Justice” released video footage and confidential documents exposing prisoner abuse in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Evin Prison houses thousands of inmates, including common criminals and political prisoners. Iranians often refer to it as “Evin University” due to the large number of intellectuals, activists, lawyers, journalists, students, artists, and scientists held there. 

Evin is “no ordinary prison,” Jason Rezaian, an Iranian American who was held there from 2014 to 2016, tweeted on October 15. “Many of Iran’s best & brightest have spent long stretches confined there, where brave women & men are denied their basic rights for speaking truth to power.” Rezaian had been charged with espionage and “propaganda against the establishment” while working as the Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post.