Word that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace reached Narges Mohammadi in Evin Prison, the notorious Tehran “House of Detention” where the Iranian activist is serving a 10-year sentence. Mohammadi was also there last October, when the streets of cities and towns across Iran surged with ordinary citizens protesting the rule of authoritarian government following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a young woman arrested by “morality police” for violating the theocracy’s strict rules on hijab.
Mohammadi had been sentenced on the same charge, along with others—propaganda against the state, actions against national security—the Iranian regime routinely uses to populate Evin’s Ward 8, the section reserved for political prisoners. In the fall of 2022, when the surging but truly leaderless protests were outstripping the regime’s capacity to contain them, activists for a time dared to suggest aloud that the Islamic Republic might actually be toppled. To the question “What would replace it?” one answer was that the likeliest leadership of a democratic Iran currently resided in Evin’s Ward 8.
So both concern and suspicion spiked on the evening of Oct. 15, 2022, when a massive fire broke out in Evin, accompanied by gunfire and explosions. Iranian authorities later claimed the blaze, which officially took eight lives, had been set by prisoners. Independent investigations, relying on forensic examinations of videos, cast that claim in doubt. But none more vividly than Mohammadi’s eyewitness account, posted eight days later on her Instagram account:
It was Saturday October 15, they cancelled the scheduled hospital visits without giving a reason. At noon, the prison alarm sounded three times which was unprecedented. At 9 pm that night suddenly we heard incessant gunshots inside the prison which left us all in shock. You could hear the sound of bullets coming from all sides of the prison. The sound of the explosions shook the building and windows. It was impossible to track the number of bullets, it lasted for over two hours.
The cry of the protesters chanting “death to the oppressor” rose from the wards adjoining the women’s ward. We too were chanting in the women’s ward. The slogans echoed extensively. From the right side of our room, just under the hill, the motorbikes of the special anti-riot forces made a terrifying sound as they passed.
From the left side of the room and the kitchen of room 4, we could clearly hear the sound the security forces as they moved on the roof of the men’s ward across from us screaming that if you stick your heads out we will shoot. They also threatened the neighboring ward where the prisoners were still chanting slogans. The guards screamed if you do not go in we will blow up your brains, and suddenly, the sound of bullets. Just imagining that the bullets were being shot at handcuffed prisoners constricted my heart. I couldn’t breathe. The sound of explosions, bullets, threats of death and shooting at the brain, the terrifying screams of the guards echoed throughout the ward.
I joined a few cellmates in the yard of the guards. When the head of the prison system and eight of his associates entered the ward, the head of the prison security and his forces were standing on the yard’s walls. Suddenly, the anti-riot guard broke into the yard and closed the door. The head of prison security was screaming that you have no right to enter this ward and ordered that the ward’s gates should not be opened under any circumstance. It was a terrifying scene.
The sarkoob [“headbashers”] were racing each other and were impossible to control. They did not even know the prison officials and system and did not heed their commands. We could see the blaze of the fire. Tear gas was being fired right behind the gates of the ward. We were forced to use spray, cigars and burning newspapers to endure.
We could hear the people around Evin. We could hear their chants and we too would scream “death to the dictator” and “death to tyranny” and “murderer no more killing” and be-sharaf [without honor”] don’t beat prisoners.”
From a week before this event, there were developments in the ward. They shut the gate between the corridor leading to the ward and the corridor of the employees and locked it, with a small opening so things could be done without the prisoners accessing the corridors that led to the exits. Three days before the event, the fire extinguishers were taken out of the ward by order of the head of the prison system, supposedly to be refilled.
At any rate, taking into consideration all the conditions that prevailed in the prison and what we witnessed take place that night, the prison was not unlike a battlefield, with the security and military forces on the ground and roofs surrounding the wards and threatening to fire bullets at the prisoners. Hundreds of bullets were fired and there were massive explosions. The reason for these horrific events remained vague and riddled with doubt. We heard of the death of tens of prisoners from sources in the prison and the severe beating and assault on prisoners (political and regular) and their transfer to known and unknown locations, the transfer of more than 900 prisoners and the creation of alarming security situation. I wish to hereby express my deep concern about the repetition of such events and urge that human rights bodies, Amnesty International, the special rapporteur for human rights, and the European Union Human Rights Commission to pay serious attention to the condition of prisoners and to hold the Iranian government accountable for their life and health.
Taking into account the conditions in the country and the widespread nature of the public protests, I’m afraid that certain security-military forces are creating scenarios and conditions to endanger the life of some political prionsers in the prisons and to blame it on the upheaval].
Narges Mohammadi, Evin Prison
[Translated for TIME by Amir Soltani]
Acting much as a journalist behind bars, Mohammadi also publicized allegations by female prisoners of sexual assault by Iranian guards and interrogators. In August, her efforts brought a sentence of another year in prison. There, she is regarded as a coalition-builder “advocating for other detainees, including the ones who have less access to raise their voice,” says Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Many many activists inside and outside the country” are celebrating her Nobel.
The award offers international support for act a movement that, after more than 500 deaths and tens of thousands of arrests, early this year conceded the streets to the regime. Not even the drama of another young woman’s apparent beating by the morality police has sparked the banked embers of the uprising. But questions about leadership still lead to the prison on the northern border of Tehran, nestled in hills planted with land mines.
“The Evin women’s wing is one of the most active, resistant and joyful quarters of political prisoners in Iran,” Mohammadi told AFP in September. “During my years in prison, on three occasions, I shared detention with at least 600 women, and I am proud of each of them.”
In the same interview she observed: “I have almost no prospect of freedom.”