Four prisoners are dead and 61 injured after a huge fire at Iran’s notorious Evin jail – where political prisoners and anti-government activists are held, as well as criminal convicts.
Gunshots were reported to have been fired as the blaze took hold at the jail in the capital Tehran.
An alarm was heard as the US-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran claimed an “armed conflict” was taking place behind the prison walls.
Shots were said to have first been heard in Ward 7 of the jail, according to unverified reports.
State-run IRNA news agency claimed there were clashes between prisoners and personnel in one ward.
An unnamed official told the Tasnim news agency in Iran: “No security (political) prisoner was involved in the clash between prisoners, and basically the ward for security prisoners is separate and far from the wards for thieves and those convicted of financial crimes.”
‘Rioters were separated from other prisoners’
A senior security official claimed inmates set fire to a warehouse full of prison uniforms, adding the “rioters” had been separated from the other prisoners to de-escalate the conflict.
The situation is now said to be “completely under control” with work under way to put the fire out.
But several eyewitnesses said ambulance sirens could still be heard and smoke could be seen over the prison.
One eyewitness told the Reuters new agency: “Roads leading to Evin prison have been closed to traffic. There are lots of ambulances here.
“Still, we can hear gunshots.”
Another witness said families of prisoners had gathered in front of the main prison entrance and “people from nearby buildings are chanting ‘Death to Khamenei’ from their windows”.
The internet was also said to have been blocked after the fire started.
Fury over Iranian dress code crackdown
The blaze happened as violent anti-government demonstrations intensified across the country for a fifth week, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, with children among the dozens dead.
International anger erupted when Ms Amini, 22, died in police custody on 16 September after being arrested by morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
Iranian officials insist she was not mistreated in custody and previously said she had a heart attack.
But her family believes her body showed signs of being beaten after she was held.
On Saturday night, the National Council of Resistance of Iran said people had gathered opposite the Iranian Embassy in London to protest against “the regime’s criminal attack on prisoners” – and to urge the international community to “intervene to prevent another massacre in Evin Prison”.
People including Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe cut their hair in a show of defiance against authorities – despite the risk of imprisonment.
This week, a senior Iranian official became the first to publicly criticise the regime’s hijab crackdown.
Ali Larijani, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, called for a re-think on how girls and women who do not adhere to the Islamic dress code are dealt with.
‘Land of the living dead’
Mr Ashoori has previously revealed his struggle to survive after spending five years in Evin prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
He described the prison as a “circle of hell”, revealing how he had to beg guards for basic needs such as using the toilet.
He was interrogated “day after day from eight in the morning right to 10 or 11 in the evening”, as his captors made threats against his family, showing him pictures of his wife and children and warning he would never see them again.
He eventually hit his “threshold of mental pain and had a mental collapse” – leading to three unsuccessful suicide attempts, the last being a 17-day hunger strike.
“When you are here with a heavy sentence on you it is as if you have died but you are not completely detached in this world,” he said.
Twitter account @FreeAnnosheh posted on Saturday night: “I can’t possibly imagine how awful & worried these poor families must feel. My heart goes out to everyone who has a loved one inside #Evin“.