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Forecast Podcast: Deadly fire at notorious Iranian prison heightens concerns for political prisoners

The entry to Evin prison

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Agnese Boffano discuss the deadly fire at Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, plus more on a Pakistan likely coming off a watchdog’s “gray list,” Colombian and Venezuelan parliaments meeting, China’s Communist Party National Congress wrapping up and a possible start to US student loan debt relief.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Joe Veyera, Irene Villora, Awais Ahmad, Alex Moore and Agnese Boffano.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note: hello@factal.com.


Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

JIMMY LOVAAS, HOST:

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is Thursday Oct. 20th.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got Pakistan likely coming off a watchdog’s “gray list,” Colombia and Venezuela parliaments meeting, China’s Communist Party National Congress wrapping up, US student loan debt relief and a look at the Iranian prison fire.

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Pakistan likely to exit FATF gray list

Information compiled by Joe Veyera

JIMMY: The Financial Action Task Force is expected to remove Pakistan from its “increased monitoring list” tomorrow. 

The South Asian nation was identified by the international watchdog in June 2018 as having “strategic deficiencies” in combating money laundering and terror financing. 

In June, the country was found to have substantially completed a pair of action plans totaling 34 items, while a 15-member delegation visited Pakistan in late August and early September to conduct an on-site review of their efforts. 

Now, analysts say the removal of Pakistan from the so-called gray list is expected to “significantly” improve both foreign direct investment and export levels in the country. 

The designation has also made it harder for the government to receive financial aid from the likes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, among others.

Colombian and Venezuelan parliaments meet

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: Representatives from Colombia’s and Venezuela’s parliaments will meet tomorrow following the reopening of borders between the two countries.

The land border between Colombia and Venezuela reopened on Sept. 26,  after seven years of closure marked by poor relations between the countries’ governments. 

The reopening came shortly after Colombia’s new left-wing President Gustavo Petro took office, in an effort to normalize diplomatic and economic relations between the nations. 

Tomorrow’s meeting will be the first of five bilateral gatherings to address issues related to the border territory and its reopening.

Now, some 90 representatives of Colombia’s and Venezuela’s chambers are expected to address issues like the flow of exports and imports and the reactivation of the economy along border towns. Other expected topics include the environmental impact of the reopening and the presence of armed groups along the more than 1,300 miles of frontier territory. 

Officials from both countries have shown interest in holding popular consultations with border communities in the near future, the goal of which would be to develop measures that increase security guarantees and improve the standard of living in the area.

China’s Communist Party National Congress wraps up

Information compiled by Awais Ahmad

JIMMY: China’s 20th Communist Party Congress will come to an end on Saturday, with Xi Jinping poised to serve a third five-year term as president.

In a two-hour speech last Sunday, President Xi laid out the Communist Party’s agenda for the country over the next five years. 

The speech touted China’s battle against coronavirus through its “zero-Covid” policy and its role in taking control of the situation in Hong Kong, which saw anti-government protests in 2019. 

Xi also expressed that China will never renounce the right to use force when it comes to Taiwan but will strive for a peaceful resolution.  

Now, the week-long session comes as the country faces an economic toll from its coronavirus response and increasingly tense relations with the United States and the West over Taiwan. 

Despite this, the session’s theme appeared to be one of continuity, not change, as exemplified by Xi’s anticipated third term.

First day U.S. government could start discharging student loan debt

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: Sunday marks the first day that the Biden administration could begin its student loan debt cancellation.

Applications opened earlier this week for those eligible for debt cancellation under President Joe Biden’s plan, which offers up to $20,000 in relief for low- to middle-income borrowers. 

Biden said more than eight million people have already applied for relief, despite Republican efforts to stymie the program. 

Now, while the Education Department holds $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, it is estimated that Biden’s relief plan will directly benefit 95 percent of the approximately 37 million borrowers from the federal government. 

With the coronavirus-induced student loan payment pause set to expire in January after being in place since March 2020, the clock is ticking for the Biden administration to extend relief before then.

Iran prison fire

Information compiled by Agnese Boffano

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on the fire at Iran’s notorious Evin prison. For more on that I spoke with fellow editor Agnese Boffano.

JIMMY: Hello, Agnese.

AGNESE: Hi, Jimmy. Thanks for having me today.

JIMMY: So glad you’re with us today. Can you maybe give us a bit of a briefing on the fire that broke out last week at the prison in Tehran? What do we know about it?

AGNESE: Of course, yeah. On the evening of last Saturday, on the 15th of October, we began seeing several eyewitness reports and videos reportedly showing flames erupting from the sides of Iran’s Evin prison, just north of Tehran. And from these videos and reports, you could also hear sounds of what appeared to be explosions and gunshots. And not long after that, we also started seeing family members of the detainees outside the prison gates shouting anti government slogans, which the police then responded to by firing tear gas. And since then, it’s been confirmed that at least eight people have died and dozens of others have been injured inside the prison.

JIMMY: Do we know what started the fire? And do we know what the gunfire was all about?

AGNESE: Well, several days on and unfortunately it’s still very difficult to verify exactly what happened. I mean, according to Iranian authorities, a fire broke out following a premeditated jailbreak. Tehran’s prosecutor then said that this took place at the prison’s seventh ward, which apparently houses crime-related detainees and is estimated to house up to 1,400 prisoners. And then as the night went on, media outlets aligned with Iran’s intelligence agencies, at first they reported, and then quickly denied, that the sounds of explosions were due to the detainees attempting to escape and then stepping on landmines.

JIMMY: Is there any connection between this fire and the ongoing protests in Iran?

AGNESE: Well, yeah, the alleged jailbreak has definitely sparked speculations that it might have been connected to the ongoing wave of nationwide anti-government protests. As you remember, these all started over five weeks ago now when Mahsa Amini, a young woman who traveled to Tehran, was arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police for reportedly not adhering to the country’s strict dress code, which was made mandatory for women after the 1979 revolution. But Amini then, shortly thereafter, fell into a coma and died while in police custody, with her family and human rights groups arguing that this was due to her having been severely beaten by the police. And so yes, the fire definitely came at a time when Iranian forces have been, you know, reported to have used extreme violence to crack down on any anti-government demonstrations with several human rights organizations saying that more than 200 protesters are believed to have died in the recent demonstrations.

JIMMY: What can you tell us about the prison itself?

AGNESE: So another reason why the fire has been speculated to be connected to the protests is that, since the time of the last shah before the revolution, this particular prison has been notorious for housing thousands of political prisoners. Now, today it’s administered by Iran’s judiciary, but several human rights organizations have over the years expressed concern, not only on the indiscriminate and arbitrary arrest of these political figures and anti-government protesters, but also on their treatment within the prison, with several reports suggesting systematic torture to be prevalent, in this institution in particular. And the fire, especially this incident, too, human rights organizations have expressed particular concern since many of the political prisoners currently housed at Evin prison, remain without contact. So many of the families are unable to reach the detainees inside.

JIMMY: Well, I know you can’t predict the future or anything, but what do you think folks should be watching for in the days ahead?

AGNESE: Well, I think the main thing to be watching out for is just some clarity into exactly what happened inside the prison. So far, as I said before, we’ve only been seeing reports from Iranian authorities because at the end of the day, there hasn’t been an independent investigation into the events. For example, Amnesty International is among several organizations to have called for, and I quote, “unhindered access.” They’re calling for international monitors to investigate reports of abuse and torture, among other things. But unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see such an investigation, especially since there doesn’t seem to be signs of these anti-government protests stopping anytime soon, and especially no suggestion that Iranian forces will halt their violent crackdown on the Iranian people.

JIMMY: Well, Agnese, I think we’ll stop there for today, but I know you’ll keep an eye on things for us and thanks for catching us up to speed. 

AGNESE: Thank you, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Joe Veyera, Irene Villora, Awais Ahmad and Alex Moore. Our interview featured editor Agnese Boffano and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2022 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: Evin prison entry by سبزفوتو Iran

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