‘Couldn’t Believe What I Was Witnessing’: Iran’s Most Notorious Prison Burns

Eyewitnesses describe chaotic scenes, gunfire and explosions at Tehran’s Evin prison, recently filled with anti-regime protesters following the death of Mahsa Amini.
evin prison fire
Fire is seen at Evin prison in Tehran on Saturday night. Photo: Twitter / @1500tasvir

A fire broke out at Iran’s most notorious prison, Evin, in Tehran, on Saturday night. Eyewitness accounts and videos shared on social media showed a blaze and smoke at the site of the prison and what sounded like gunfire in the area. 

Evin holds many of the country’s political prisoners, including activists, lawyers, journalists, students and dual citizens. 

As massive nationwide protests have unfolded in Iran over the last five weeks following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s morality police, many more people have been detained at Evin. For over 40 years, even prior to the 1979 revolution which led to the foundation of the Islamic Republic, Evin has been known for its horrific conditions, allegations of torture and executions of prisoners.

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Sources on the ground told VICE World News that families of detainees had come to Evin earlier on Saturday to demand the release of their children. As reports of a fire spread, gridlocked traffic surrounded the prison. Eyewitnesses VICE World News spoke to claimed that elite Iranian special forces on motorcycles and armoured vehicles moved into the area.

Several sources on the ground reported hearing multiple explosions and gunfire.

Information about the cause of the fire and aftermath is scant and hard to verify. Sources on the ground reported near total internet blackouts around Evin and throughout much of the capital. There’s widespread concern from Iran observers about the condition and safety of the prisoners inside.

Iranian state media reported that the situation started when a group of inmates set fire to a warehouse of prison clothing. On Sunday state media reported that four prisoners had died and 61 had been injured, and that order had been restored.

Late on Saturday in the streets around Evin, protesters had continued to gather. “People are chanting ‘down with the dictator’ and ‘death to Khamenei’ in the streets and highways around Evin,” an eyewitness said, one of several people on the ground last night that VICE World News was able to speak to. We are not publishing their identities for security purposes.

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“Currently several of my close friends who were arrested in the recent protests are in Evin. This worried me a lot. I talked to the family of one of my prisoned friends, who were very worried and were on their way to Evin. Unfortunately, I couldn't talk to them since then, their phones are no longer available,” the same eyewitness said.

“The Islamic Republic and [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei himself are responsible for the lives of all the people in Evin. Tonight is a very difficult and long night for the families of the prisoners, especially political ones, protesters and citizens. But if anything happens to the prisoners of Evin, tomorrow will be much more difficult for the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

An image obtained via Iranian state news agency IRNA, supposedly showing damage caused by a fire outside Evin prison. Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

An image obtained via Iranian state news agency IRNA, supposedly showing damage caused by a fire outside Evin prison. Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

A second person at the scene said they were in “absolute disbelief” at what they saw. “Special [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] forces, riot police, fire trucks, something I had not seen in all my time. Then I heard gunfire, and saw a machine gun. It looked as if they were shooting from high points around the prison into the prison,” the second witness said.

“Then there was another explosion where the waves shook me, and I was trembling. From there I was able to get away. Evin is positioned in a way where people can reach it from all around and it has two doors. Families who had been surrounding the prison were getting restless and more people were trying to approach the place,” the witness continued.

“As I was leaving I would pass around the prison, all entrances were shut with armed special security forces holding Kalashnikovs. Anyone that approached, they said you have 3 seconds or we will shoot.”

The witness added: “I couldn't believe what I was witnessing, I was trembling all over. I felt like some major change is to come.”