evin prison fire
Smoke and flames seen in social media video from infamous prison
02:33 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kylie Moore-Gilbert is an Australian-British scholar of Middle East and Islamic studies. She was imprisoned in Iran in September 2018 over espionage allegations and released in November 2020 in a prisoner exchange. Moore-Gilbert is the author of “The Uncaged Sky: My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

“Evin’s on fire! It’s going up in flames, and they’re shooting at the prisoners inside!” This was one of the flurry of messages I received late October 15 from Iranian activists and fellow survivors of the country’s most notorious prison.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert

Among us was a collective sense of shock and amazement, tempered with fear and concern for those trapped inside Evin prison. I had visions of my former cellmates, dear friends who had become like sisters, cowering in smoke-filled hallways fighting the effects of tear gas.

I could barely bring myself to contemplate their terror, being locked in a crowded prison ward with no prospect of escape as flames, bullets and riot police encroached from all sides.

Deep down part of me hoped that this godforsaken place would burn to the ground — after all the prisoners had escaped, of course.

Knowing that Evin prison had experienced sit-ins, demonstrations and unrest in the one month since Iran’s protest movement erupted on the streets, I immediately suspected a prison uprising could have been behind the fire. (Iran’s judiciary maintains prisoners started the blaze in a workshop after a fight, and that those killed died of smoke inhalation.)

But reports since have suggested that the blaze began in men’s Ward 7, which housed a mix of criminal inmates and recently arrested protesters.

The aftermath of the fire at Evin prison in Tehran on October 16. Eight prisoners were reported dead.

These men allegedly broke down the doors between their ward and the neighboring Ward 8 and clashed with security forces, who reportedly fired bullets and tear gas indiscriminately into the resulting conflagration. Eight prisoners have been reported dead as a result of the onslaught.

For decades the notoriously brutal facility has housed political prisoners — most recently, activists arrested during nationwide protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last month in police custody.

Former foreign hostages and other victims of Iran’s prison system as well as family members of current detainees frantically exchanged information and checked up on one another in the fire’s aftermath.

One by one, the families of political prisoners held in Evin got word out that their loved ones were OK. Elderly Austrian dual citizen Massud Mossaheb was suffering from the effects of tear gas and smoke inhalation but was alive. High-value American hostages Siamak Namazi and Emad Sharghi had been whisked out of the men’s public wards and interned elsewhere, away from the flames.

The Iranian human rights lawyer Amirsalar Davoudi got word out that he and his cellmates in Ward 4 had survived — likewise the recently arrested activist Arash Sadeghi. There was a collective sigh of relief among those of us connected to the prison with every welfare check received.

The two years I spent in Evin were the most harrowing of my life. I had been arrested at Tehran airport following a three-week visit to attend an academic conference, and following a sham trial, was convicted of “espionage.” I ultimately served two years and three months of a 10-year sentence before being freed in a prisoner swap deal negotiated by the Australian government.

Evin prison, where I spent most of my sentence, is built into the steep foothills of the Alborz Mountains. Ringed by high concrete walls topped with razor wire, the prison is guarded by a contingent of armed soldiers whose noisy patrols could often be heard from within the cells.

Entering via the prison’s imposing front gates involves passing an elaborate series of checkpoints while blindfolded, handcuffed and crammed into the back seat of a vehicle, alongside prison transfer guards. A prisoner could count how many checkpoints had been passed by how many times the vehicle’s trunk was opened and inspected.

Inside is a maze of administrative buildings and judiciary offices, with roughly a dozen prison wards perched on top of each other and built into the sharp slope of the mountain.

Evin is also home to maximum security detention facilities under the control of external actors, such as the Revolutionary Guards or the Ministry of Intelligence. It was in one of these facilities, the Revolutionary Guards’ 2A unit, that I lost more than two years of my life.

These “black sites” are excluded from the oversight of Iran’s Prison Authority, an institution that is supposed to safeguard prisoner rights. These various competing groups would routinely clash with o