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Iran Protests Spread With Uprising at Prison

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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 the U.S. says is 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.

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 headcovering, 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 antigovernment 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 charred building at Evin Prison on Sunday in a handout photo from Iran state media.



Photo:

Associated Press

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.

State media gave a different account, saying inmates set fire to a sewing workshop, according to Iran’s state media. Some inmates had blades and tried to escape the prison, state media said.

“The action was planned in advance,” said the Fars News Agency, which is close to Iran’s security agencies.

Thick smoke rising on Saturday from Evin Prison during the blaze, which authorities said the fire killed four inmates.



Photo:

-/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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. He was briefly furloughed earlier this month. A family member said Mr. Namazi was safe.

Emad Shargi,

another Iranian-American incarcerated at the prison on what the U.S. has called false charges, also contacted his family and said he was alive, his sister

Neda Shargi

said.

Prisoners in Ward 8 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 the ward since the melee, and another 14 who had been injured were returned to prison without treatment.

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.

In a sign that Iran’s establishment isn’t yet bending to protesters’ demands, a Parliament inquiry cleared the police in the death of 22-year-old

Mahsa Amini,

whose fatal encounter with authorities over alleged violations of the country’s dress code sparked the protests.

The Parliament report rejected allegations that the police physically harmed Ms. Amini, and called for anyone blaming the police to be prosecuted if they don’t recant.

The report, however, said that emergency services had taken too long to arrive and recommended improvements in policing the country’s dress code, including by equipping the morality police with body-cams.

But the lawmakers said the female obligation to wear the veil should be maintained, though it said the government should “promote hijab and chastity, in addition to implementing laws, in positive ways.”

Write to Benoit Faucon at [email protected] and David S. Cloud at [email protected]

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