UPDATE 4-Fire, gunshots at Tehran jail holding political prisoners, dual nationals

(Adds State Department spokesman’s tweet in paragraph 14)

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI, Oct 15 (Reuters) –

On Saturday, a fire broke out in Tehran’s Evin prison, where many of Iran’s political and dual national prisoners are being held, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots.

State news agency IRNA said eight people were injured in the riots that broke out after nearly a month of protests across Iran over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from Iran.

The protests posed one of the biggest challenges for the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution, as demonstrations spread across the country and some people demanded the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A statement from the Iranian judiciary said a prison workshop was set on fire “after a fight between several prisoners convicted of financial crimes and theft.” Tehran’s fire department told state media it was investigating the cause of the incident.

Located in the foothills on the northern outskirts of the Iranian capital, the prison houses both convicts and political prisoners.

“The roads leading to Evin Prison have been closed to traffic. There are many ambulances here,” said a witness contacted by Reuters. “Nevertheless, we can hear shots.”

Another witness said families of prisoners gathered in front of the prison’s main entrance. “I can see fire and smoke. Lots of special forces,” said the witness.

A security official said calm had returned to the prison, but the first witness said ambulance sirens could be heard and smoke was still rising over the prison.

“People from nearby buildings are shouting ‘Death to Khamenei’ from their windows,” the witness said.

The prison mainly holds detainees facing security charges, including Iranians with dual nationality. It has long been criticized by Western rights groups and was blacklisted by the US government in 2018 for “gross human rights violations”.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American jailed for nearly seven years on espionage charges that Washington dismissed as unfounded, returned to Evin on Wednesday after being granted a short leave, his attorney said.

Other US citizens being held in Evin include environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who also has British citizenship, and businessman Emad Shargi, according to human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan.

He added that several other dual nationals are being held in Evin, including French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah and Iranian-Swedish Ahmadreza Djalali, a disaster medicine doctor.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted: “We are following the reports from Evin Prison with urgency. We are in contact with Switzerland as our protecting power. Iran bears full responsibility for the safety of our unjustly detained citizens, who should be released immediately. “

Human Rights Watch has accused the prison authorities of threatening torture and indefinite detention, lengthy interrogations, and denial of medical care to detainees.

“No (political) security prisoner was involved in today’s prisoner clash, and basically the security prisoner section is separate and distant from the thieves and financial crimes sections,” an unnamed official told the Tasnim news agency.

“Clerics Lost”

The unrest at Evin prison comes after nearly a month of protests across Iran since Amini – a 22-year-old woman from the country’s Kurdish region – died on September 16 while being held for “inappropriate clothing”.

Though the unrest appears no close to overturning the system, the protests have escalated into strikes that have shut down shops and businesses, touched on the vital energy sector and led to brazen acts of resistance to Iran’s religious rule.

On Saturday, protesters across Iran chanted in the streets and at universities against the country’s religious leaders.

A video posted by Norway-based organization Iran Human Rights is said to show protests in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran’s second-most populous city, with protesters chanting “clerics get lost” and motorists honking their horns.

Videos posted by the group showed a strike by shopkeepers in the northwest Kurdish town of Saqez – Amini’s hometown. Another video shared on social media showed high school girls chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom” on the streets of Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Province.

Reuters could not independently verify the videos. Phone and internet services in Iran have been disrupted frequently over the past month, and internet watchdog NetBlocks reported “a new major disruption” just before protests began on Saturday.

The Iranian activist news agency HRANA said on Saturday that 233 people were killed in the unrest, including 32 minors and 26 members of the security forces. According to an online post, more than 7,000 people have been arrested during protests in 112 cities and around 70 universities.

Among the victims were

Teenage girls

whose death has become a rallying cry for more demonstrations demanding the demise of the Islamic Republic.

Protesters called for demonstrations in the northwestern city of Ardabil on Saturday over the death of Asra Panahi, a teenager from the Azerbaijani ethnic minority who activists said was beaten to death by security forces.

Officials denied the report, and news outlets close to the Revolutionary Guards quoted her uncle as saying the student died of a heart problem.

(Dubai Bureau reporting, additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Mike Stone in Washington, writing by Dominic Evans, editing by Helen Popper, William Maclean, Paul Simao and Diane Craft)