Iran Protests Spread with Uprising at Prison

Activists say prisoners chanted antigovernment slogans;
Parliament clears police in Mahsa Amini’s death.
The fire Saturday at Evin Prison in Tehran, which the U.S. says is a political prison for dissidents and foreigners and is known to hold demonstrators from recent protests.

WSJ     |     By Benoit Faucon and David S. Cloud      |      Oct. 16, 2022

The protest movement sweeping Iran spread to a Tehran prison known as a symbol of political repression in a new challenge to the Islamic Republic, with detained dissidents chanting antigovernment slogans before violence erupted and a deadly fire engulfed the facility, activists said.

Authorities said the fire killed four inmates and blamed a planned escape attempt on Saturday for the mayhem at Evin Prison, a complex in north Tehran erected by the shah five decades ago that serves as a political prison for dissidents and foreigners. A large fire was visible at Evin from the densely populated neighboring communities, and loud bangs were heard through much of the night.

The melee started in a ward of the prison that houses inmates convicted of financial crimes and other criminal offenses but quickly spread to areas where political prisoners and dissidents are held, prompting guards to bring in reinforcements and firefighters to put down the protests and extinguish the fire, according to officials and human rights activists.

By Sunday morning, authorities said they were back in control, but the unrest marked another indication that the country’s Islamic leadership is facing one of the gravest tests in its 43-year existence. The protests that first focused on the country’s mandatory hijab, or head covering, for women have morphed into something larger, calling for the end of the strict Islamic governance ushered in with the country’s 1979 revolution. While authorities said the prison violence had nothing to do recent protests, witnesses and advocates for the prisoners said the extraordinary incident at Evin was another sign that the leaderless movement was spreading beyond the government’s control.

Protests continued across Iran over the weekend, according to footage verified by Storyful, which is owned by News Corp, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal. In Ardabil, a town in northwest Iran, there were demonstrations after a teachers’ association said a schoolgirl was beaten to death after a pro-regime event turned into an anti-government protest. The government has denied responsibility, saying she had died from a heart condition.

By the accounts of both activists and the government, the violence at Evin began on Saturday.

In the women’s ward of the prison, some inmates broke down the door of the two-story building housing around 45 prisoners, and moved into the staff area of the prison yard, where they started chanting antigovernment slogans, said Atena Daemi, a human-rights activist in Tehran who was released from Evin eight months ago after seven years imprisoned there. She said she had heard accounts of the riot from eight families, who received brief calls Sunday from prisoners in Evin’s women’s ward.

A prison guard warned the women, some of whom weren’t wearing mandatory headscarves, that they would be killed unless they went back into the building, Ms. Daemi said, citing the accounts told by the families.

Guards fired tear gas and threw “something like a grenade,” Ms. Daemi said she was told. Women also reported seeing guards armed with rifles aiming at them with laser sights, which project a visible beam.

Two women prisoners—Sepideh Kashani, an environmental activist, and Zahra Safaei, a political activist—were overcome by the tear gas and needed treatment, Ms. Daemi said, citing accounts from the families. None of the women imprisoned in the ward were arrested during recent protests, she said.

“They said everybody in the women’s ward is safe, but the situation is tense,” Ms. Daemi said. “Due to the large amount of tear gas used in the prison, some of them have burning eyes and shortness of breath.”

The government has arrested hundreds of protesters, jailing the most politically active ones in Evin, said members of the protest movement and human-rights activists. They include six students at the Sharif University who were arrested when the elite Tehran institution was surrounded by police two weeks ago, say students who escaped the raid. Another affected ward held political prisoners, according to accounts gathered by the Free Union of Iranian Workers, the main umbrella of trade unions, which has many members held at Evin. Some Evin prisoners had gathered in the courtyard and chanted slogans against the government on Friday, the union said.

Then on Saturday, prison officials tried to intimidate the prisoners, who later protested and rioted, the union said. When family members went to the prison to check on their relatives’ safety, they were initially told Sunday that they wouldn’t be allowed to talk with prisoners, Ms. Daemi added. But when the families protested, they were allowed to have brief conversations.

On Sunday morning, families of detainees could be seen outside the prison seeking news of their jailed relatives. More than 15,000 inmates are said to be held at the sprawling complex on the outskirts of Tehran. Authorities said Saturday’s melee began in Ward 7, which is supposed to be for inmates convicted of financial crimes. The inmates set fire to a sewing workshop, according to Iran’s state media, adding that some prisoners had blades and tried to escape the prison. When prisoners from Ward 7 broke out of their building, they freed prisoners in Ward 8, Ms. Daemi said.

Among those in Ward 8 was Emad Shargi, an Iranian-American incarcerated at the prison on what the U.S. has called false charges, according to his sister, Neda Sharghi. She talked to him briefly Saturday night by phone, she said, hearing shooting and yelling in the background. Later he was moved to another ward, she said.

“He was moved from where the riots were,” she said. “We haven’t been able to get much more information.”

By early Sunday morning, Iranian state television aired a video showing that the prison was calm, though damaged by the fire. State media said the unrest had involved only prisoners convicted of theft and financial crimes, a claim disputed by human-rights activists.

Four inmates died of smoke inhalation and 61 were injured, state news agency IRNA said.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American imprisoned on espionage-related charges rejected by Washington as baseless, has been detained at Evin for seven years. His lawyer, Jared Genser, said Mr. Namazi was placed in solitary confinement after the riots Saturday and told it was “for his own protection.” He was briefly furloughed earlier this month then returned to Evin.

Some prisoners were without water and food Sunday, according to Ms. Daemi, citing conversations with families of men incarcerated there. She said 45 prisoners had been transferred from Ward 8 since the melee, and an additional 14 who had been injured were returned without treatment.

Azin Mohajerin, the lead human-rights officer at Miaan Group, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization focused on human rights in Iran, said Evin and the rest of the prisons system in Iran is “overcrowded, above its maximum capacity after the large number of arrests during the protests.” Mr. Mohajerin, who is compiling a list of detainees and their conditions, said that Iran’s prisons are so full with detained protesters that arrested female high-school students are now mixed with adults in crowded cells.

Evin Prison and its management were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018 for human-rights abuses. “Prisoners held at Evin Prison are subject to brutal tactics inflicted by prison authorities, including sexual assaults, physical assaults, and electric shock,” the Treasury Department said.