233 dead in Iran, protests enter fifth week

By SAMYA KULLAB (Associated Press)

BAGHDAD (AP) — A huge fire broke out on Saturday at a notorious prison where political prisoners and anti-government activists are held in the Iranian capital. Online videos and local media reported gunshots, as nationwide protests entered their fifth week.

IRNA, an Iranian state-owned company, reported that there had been clashes between prisoners in one ward and prison staff, citing a senior security official. The official said prisoners set fire to a warehouse full of prisoner uniforms, which started the fire. He said the “rioters” had been separated from other prisoners to defuse the conflict.

The official said the “situation is completely under control” and firefighters were extinguishing the flames. Later, Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi said “peace” had returned to the prison and the unrest was unrelated to the protests that swept the country for four weeks.

Images of the fire have circulated online. Videos showed gunshots ringing out as plumes of smoke rose into the sky at the sound of an alarm. A protest broke out in the streets soon after, with many chanting “Death to the dictator!” – a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and burning tires, circulating videos showed.

Witnesses said police blocked roads and highways leading to Evin Prison and at least three loud explosions were heard coming from the area. Traffic was heavy along major highways near the prison, which is north of the capital, and many people honked their horns to show their solidarity with the protests.

Riot police were seen on motorcycles heading towards the facility, along with ambulances and firefighters. Witnesses reported that the internet was blocked in the area.

The American Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that an “armed conflict” had broken out within the prison walls. He said gunshots were first heard in Ward 7 of the prison. This account could not be immediately verified.

The prison fire happened on Saturday as protesters intensified anti-government protests along main streets and at universities in some cities across Iran. Human rights monitors reported hundreds of deaths, including children, as the movement completed its fourth week.

The demonstrators also chanted “Down with the dictator” in the streets of Ardabil, in the northwest of the country. Outside universities in Kermanshah, Rasht and Tehran, students gathered, according to videos on social media. In the town of Sanandaj, a hotbed of protests in the northern Kurdistan region, schoolgirls chanted “Woman, life, freedom” in a central street.

The protests erupted after public outrage over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. She was arrested by Iranian vice police in Tehran for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code. The Iranian government insists Amini was not abused while in police custody, but her family say her body showed bruises and other signs of beatings after her arrest.

At least 233 protesters have been killed since protests swept across Iran on September 17, according to US-based human rights monitor HRANA. The group said 32 of the dead were under the age of 18. Earlier, Oslo-based Iran Human Rights estimated that 201 people had been killed.

Iranian authorities have dismissed the unrest as an alleged Western plot, without providing evidence.

Public anger in Iran has grown over Amini’s death, prompting girls and women to take off their compulsory headscarves in the streets in a show of solidarity. Other segments of society, including oil workers, have also joined the movement, which has spread to at least 19 cities, becoming one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the country’s green movement in 2009.

Riots have also broken out in prisons, with clashes reported recently between inmates and guards at Lakan prison in the northern province of Gilan.

Evin prison, which holds detainees facing security-related charges and includes people with dual nationality, has been accused by rights groups of abusing detainees. The facility has long been known to hold political prisoners as well as people with Western ties who have been used by Iran as bargaining chips in international negotiations.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American who was released from prison while serving a 10-year sentence on internationally criticized espionage charges, was recently returned to Evin. Her 85-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, was released and allowed to leave the country.

In 2018, the prison was hit with US sanctions. “Prisoners held at Evin Prison are subject to brutal tactics inflicted by prison authorities, including sexual assault, physical assault, and electric shock,” the US Treasury Department wrote in a statement after announcing the charges. sanctions in 2018.

Trade strikes resumed on Saturday in key towns across the Kurdish region, including Saqqez, Amini’s hometown and birthplace of the protests, Bukan and Sanandaj.

The government responded with a brutal crackdown, arresting activists and protest organizers, reprimanding Iranian celebrities for expressing their support, even confiscating their passports and using live ammunition, tear gas and sound bombs to disperse crowds, resulting in deaths.

In a widely shared video on Saturday, plainclothes Basij, a group of paramilitary volunteers, is seen forcing a woman into a car and firing bullets into the air amid a protest in Gohardasht, in the northern Iran.

Widespread internet blackouts have also made it difficult for protesters to communicate with the outside world, while Iranian authorities have detained at least 40 journalists since the unrest began, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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