UPDATED: Iran prison fire kills four, injures 61 as protests persist

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Oct 16 (Reuters) – A fire at Iran’s Evin prison late on Saturday killed four detainees and injured 61, state media reported, as anti-government protests sparked by a woman’s death in police custody continued on Sunday, including at several universities.

Iranian authorities said on Saturday that a prison workshop had been set on fire “after a fight among a number of prisoners convicted of financial crimes and theft”. Evin holds many detainees facing security charges, including Iranians with dual nationality.

Iran’s judiciary said four of those injured in Saturday’s fire were in critical condition and that those killed had died of smoke inhalation, Iranian state media reported.

Earlier state television aired video apparently showing that calm had returned to the facility.

The protests sparked by 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police on Sept. 16 have turned into one of the boldest challenges to the clerical leadership since the 1979 revolution, and have been met with a brutal state crackdown.

Rights groups say at least 240 protesters have been killed, including 32 minors. The authorities have not published a death toll.

Protests continued at several universities on Sunday, including in the cities of Tabriz and Rasht, to a heavy deployment of riot police. Videos posted on social media showed students at a Tehran university chanting: “Iran has turned into a big prison. Evin prison has become a slaughterhouse.”

Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

Families of some political detainees at Evin prison took to social media to call on the authorities to ensure their safety, which in 2018 was blacklisted by the U.S. government for “serious human rights abuses”.

Footage of the prison aired on state television hours later showed firefighters inspecting a workshop with fire damage to the roof. It also showed inmates asleep in their wards.

Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, said that relatives of prisoners held in the women’s section had gathered at the prison for routine visiting hours, but that the authorities had denied them access, resulting in a standoff.

The relatives were told that the prisoners were “fine, but the phones are broken”, according to Daemi. However, she later tweeted that some women prisoners had called their families briefly.

A lawyer representing an American Iranian held at Evin, Siamak Namazi, imprisoned for nearly seven years on espionage-related charges rejected by Washington as baseless, said on Sunday that Namazi had contacted his relatives.

Several other dual national Iranians and foreign citizens are held in Evin prison mostly for security-related charges.

“I am pleased to report that #SiamakNamazi has now spoken to his family. He is safe and has been moved to a secure area of Evin Prison. We have no further details at this time,” Jared Genser said in a tweet.

The husband of Iranian journalist Niloofar Hamedi, who broke the news of Amini’s death and was arrested last month, also wrote on Twitter that she had telephoned him on Sunday.

VIOLENT CRACKDOWN

Asked about the prison fire, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters during a campaign trip on Saturday to Portland, Oregon that the Iranian government was “so oppressive” and that he was surprised by the courage of the Iranian protesters.

Iran’s foreign ministry said Biden had interfered in state matters by showing support for the anti-government protests.

Rights groups said at least 240 protesters had been killed in the anti-government protests, including 32 minors. Over 8,000 people had been arrested in 111 cities and towns, Iranian activist news agency HRANA said on Saturday.

Among the casualties have been teenage girls whose deaths have become a rallying cry for more demonstrations across the country.

Iran, which has blamed the violence on enemies at home and abroad, deny security forces have killed protesters. State media said on Saturday at least 26 members of the security forces had been killed by “rioters”.

The protests have attracted international condemnation, with the United States, Canada and some European countries imposing sanctions on Iranian officials and organisations they accuse of being involved in the clampdown on protesters.

“On Saturday … Biden interfered in Iran’s state matters by supporting the riots … In recent days, the U.S. administration has tried desperately to inflame unrest in Iran under various excuses,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said, Iran’s state media reported.

The protests mark one of the boldest challenges to clerical rule since the 1979 revolution, with demonstrations spreading across the country and widespread calls for the downfall the Islamic Republic, even if the unrest does not seem close to toppling the system.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

A file photo of an Iranian policeman in the women’s section of the Evin prison in north Tehran. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

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