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At least four dead and 60 injured in fire at Iran's Evin prison

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Iran, the state news agency is reporting that a fire at Tehran's Evin Prison killed four inmates and left more than 60 injured. The agency says the four died of smoke inhalation. The prison is known to house political prisoners as well as anti-government activists. And the deadly incident comes amid nationwide protests against the Iranian regime. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul and joins us. Good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Peter, are there any other details about what happened?

KENYON: Well, there have been various reports over several hours now, some of them contradictory. One report said there had been clashes between prison guards and inmates, and the so-called rioters had set fire to a stack of prison uniforms, causing the blaze. That was quickly disputed by a former inmate at the prison who tweeted that at that hour of the night, no prisoners would have had access to the workshops where the uniforms would be. Meanwhile, estimates of those injured just varied widely throughout the night. But now the IRNA state news agency has come out with what appears to be a more or less official toll of dead and wounded, quoting the Iranian judiciary as its source. And now another report from the media arm of the judiciary adds that in addition to the dead and injured, some 70 prisoners were rescued from the fire.

RASCOE: What about Americans at the prison? Is there any information about them?

KENYON: Well, we know that Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman, had just been sent back into the prison, following a two-week furlough, which many international officials had been calling on Iran to make permanent. Iranian authorities also announced that Namazi's father, Baquer, who had also been detained when he tried to visit his son in prison, had his travel ban lifted so he could leave the country for urgent medical treatment, which he did. Then there's the case of Emad Shargi, also an Iranian American businessman. He was taken into custody in 2018, convicted of spying, sentenced to 10 years in prison. Tehran doesn't recognize dual citizenship, so they tried him as an Iranian. There's been no word on the status of either man since the fire.

Shargi's family issued a statement. It says in part, they are, quote, "terrified by today's news out of Evin Prison." Words cannot describe how concerned they are for his safety. They implored President Biden to get Emad Shargi, quote, "out of danger and back home to the United States." The State Department had a response as well - spokesman Ned Price saying, quote, "We are following reports from Evin Prison with urgency," and adding, quote, "Iran is fully responsible for the safety of our wrongfully detained citizens who should be released immediately."

RASCOE: Peter, in about the minute we have left, this is all happening against the backdrop of demonstrations and protests all across Iran, following the death of a young woman in police custody. What's the latest on those?

KENYON: Well, those protests have shown no sign of abating, despite a harsh and often violent crackdown by Iranian riot police and other forces. So far, some analysts have noted that the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has not been asked to join that effort to quell these protests. If that happens, the bloodshed could get significantly worse. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but rights groups have estimated at least 200 people killed, more than 1,500 others sent to jail because of these protests. And they began as protests against the death of a 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police. But they've developed into a general anti-government movement demanding the overthrow of Iran's clerical establishment.

RASCOE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thank you so much.

KENYON: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.