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What we know about the days of chaos behind the walls of Tehran's Evin prison

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A fire at Iran's notorious Evin prison has killed at least eight people. That's according to the state news agency there. The fire started over the weekend. Video posted online shows several blazes, people screaming, gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MARTIN: The prison is on the outskirts of the capital city, Tehran, and holds hundreds of dissidents and political prisoners, including American nationals and protesters who've been arrested during the recent antigovernment demonstrations over women's rights. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following all this and joins us now from Istanbul.

Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What have we learned has happened at the prison thus far?

KENYON: Well, we still don't have confirmation of exactly how the fire started. The IRNA state news agency is reporting that the head of Iran's state-run High Council for Human Rights paid a visit to the scorched prison ward. He's quoted as repeating the government version of what happened. He said, quote, "thugs and prisoners convicted of violent crimes had clashed with prison guards." But then he added that the unrest was over.

He said on Twitter that, quote, "calm has been restored in Evin prison, and the situation is under full control." Now, his reference to thugs and violent prisoners suggests that Iran is keen to blame the unrest on certain types of inmates and avoid any mention of the political prisoners and antigovernment activists you mentioned who are also incarcerated there. And he made no mention of the two Americans being held, although their families reportedly say they're OK.

MARTIN: So this fire happened as these protests have continued around Iran, right? They've been going on for weeks. What are Iranian leaders saying about them at this point?

KENYON: Well, they are generally blaming outside enemies, in particular the U.S. President Ebrahim Raisi recalled that the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, had called the United States the Great Evil, sometimes translated as the Great Satan. Raisi added that America, quote, "feels angry with any act of innovation in Iran, while being happy with the problems and insecurities in the country." Interestingly, though, he also cited the need for, quote, "effective measures to solve the problems of the people so as to neutralize these plots hatched by enemies." That seems to suggest that Tehran does recognize at some level that these widespread public protests the world's been watching for weeks now are a sign of deep public unhappiness with many political and social restrictions.

And again, they're being led by Iranian women. They face perhaps the most restrictions of all. Women are videoed removing their headscarves, sometimes burning them in sight of security forces, demanding the freedom to live their lives without these mandates.

MARTIN: Yeah. The protests started with women protesting the death of a 22-year-old - right? - a 22-year-old young woman who died in police custody. Can you remind us the details of that story?

KENYON: Sure. Mahsa Amini, a young woman from Iran's Kurdish minority, was detained for allegedly improper attire by the security forces known as Iran's morality police. She died three days later. Her family rejected the official explanation that she had fainted and died of natural causes, saying there was evidence she was beaten in police custody, which the government denies. And it's important to point out here that Amini's alleged offense, showing too much hair under her hijab, is something large numbers of Iranian women do every day, and they've been doing it for some time. And that makes these actions by the police all the more shocking to a lot of Iranians.

MARTIN: Yeah. I've seen these videos circulating of groups of women just walking in Iran with no headscarf, which is in itself such a brave and risky act.

KENYON: Yeah.

MARTIN: How is the U.S. absorbing all this? How's the Biden administration responding?

KENYON: Well, President Joe Biden has already commented. He said the U.S. stands with Iranian women. He said, quote, "Iran has to end the violence against its own citizens, who are simply exercising their fundamental rights." That prompted Iran's President Raisi to respond by blaming Biden for inciting, quote, "chaos, terror and destruction" in Iran. As to how else the U.S. and Western countries could respond, the EU is reportedly considering blacklisting Iran's morality police, among other sanctions. And we have to note, Tehran is long used to Western sanctions. They've been being laid on for years. Some officials seem to take pride in the country's ability to carry on despite them.

MARTIN: Peter, you've been watching Iran for a very long time. Do these protests in this moment feel different to you?

KENYON: Well, certainly they are huge, the biggest ones in more than a decade. And they involve a very broad sweep of the Iranian public. And so that certainly has to be alarming to some in the government.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul.

Thank you so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.