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‘Instead of rescue teams, they sent riot police’: Building collapse triggers outrage in Iran

The deadly collapse of a building under construction on May 23 in Abadan, a city in Iran’s Khuzestan province, has sparked a wave of outrage in the country. At least 41 people died in the tragedy and dozens are still missing. Two weeks after the collapse, hundreds of protestors blaming the authorities for negligence and corruption are still in the streets.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called for those responsible for the tragedy to be prosecuted and punished. The regional judiciary also announced that it had arrested thirteen people, including the mayor of Abadan and two of its former mayors.

The protests, however, are not letting up. Protesters accuse the owner of the 10-storey building, Hossein Abdolbaghi, a businessman close to the government, of corruption. The unrest has spread to other towns across the southwestern region of Iran.

A member of the riot police beats protesters in Abadan, Iran. Video published on May 30.

Emergency workers are still pulling bodies from the rubble. On June 6, the death toll rose to 41, Iranian officials said, but they fear that more bodies have yet to be recovered. Residents worry that up to a hundred people may still be trapped under debris.

Video showing the moment the building collapsed.
Footage of the collapse filmed from a shop near the building.

‘You have to dig and crawl under tonnes of gravel and cement to find the bodies’

The Iranian Red Crescent Society and fire brigade have been dispatched to help the victims. However, the search and rescue operations are mainly carried out by residents, according to our Observer, Leili (not her real name), an Iranian activist who lives in Abadan. After the building collapsed, she rushed to the site.

The bulk of the relief effort falls on the shoulders of the residents. The fire brigade and the Red Crescent seem overwhelmed. No one knows what is going on at the site. There is no clear rescue plan.

The fire brigade and the Red Crescent have told me that they don’t have enough equipment. They also told me that there was no one to give directions.

Aerial images of the building showing the extent of the damage.

What is worse is that the crisis management agency had ordered a large number of riot police to be deployed in the city, all of whom were dispatched from other regions. They have been all over the city since the building collapsed and even before the protests started.

This volunteer says that members of his family are trapped inside, and that no one is helping them. “The rescue teams are only there for the TV cameras,” he says. “Instead of sending the rescue team, they sent the riot police,” he adds in tears. Video published on May 26.

Volunteers tried to dig out survivors and bodies with rudimentary tools.

They brought all sorts of tools they thought would be useful: hacksaws, shovels and even pots to remove the gravel. And I must say that the volunteers have done and are still doing most of the work.

The rescue teams are working with big machines to clear the area, but that is a small part of the job. Because you have to dig and crawl under tons of gravel and cement to find the bodies. This has to be done by hand, not by machines, and this work is done by the volunteers, not the rescue groups. Brothers or fathers dig on their own to find their relatives’ bodies.

Volunteers use a cooking pot to clear gravel. Video published on May 24.

According to official documents published by local journalists, the body responsible for approving construction projects in Iran, the Construction Engineering Organization, has repeatedly indicated that the Metropol Building’s safety features were not up to standard.
The organisation pointed out certain risks, including the addition of three extra floors to the building, which was already considered unstable. They have reported these irregularities to three successive mayors of the city and the city council since January 2022.

A report by the Construction Engineering Organization, published by journalists, underlined the “unsafety of the building” and called for “suspension of construction”. The directive was never implemented. Photo published on May 23.

The building’s owner, Hossein Abdolbaghi, a wealthy businessman from the southwestern province of Khuzestan, is known to have links with high-ranking figures. In photos posted on his website, he is often seen with commanders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps or the governor of the province.
Authorities initially said that Abdolbaghi had been arrested before announcing that he was inside the building when it collapsed and that he had died. Police said they were able to identify his body through DNA tests and identification documents found on the body. But many did not believe the announcement, our Observers in Iran told us.

A member of the riot police shoots at a protester. Published on May 28.

‘They used so much tear gas that rescue teams and volunteers had to suspend rescue operations’

People believe that the owner of the building was arrested, but was later killed to cover up important information about corruption.

The protests have been brutally repressed and many protesters have been arrested, including well-known activists. There are more and more people outside Abadan prison looking for their arrested relatives.

They shot at people with tear gas and beat them. They used so much tear gas that rescue teams and volunteers had to suspend rescue operations.

Protests have rocked the country for several weeks, particularly since the government lifted subsidies on flour and increased the prices of basic food items such as oil and dairy products.

‘The resentment and desire for change is widespread throughout the country’

Mahdi Hajati is an Iranian political analyst and former member of the Shiraz city council. He was arrested after revealing a network of corruption among city officials and protesting against the arrest of some Baháʼí citizens in Shiraz in 2018 and 2019. The Baháʼí faith has long been persecuted in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hajati had to leave the country to avoid serving another prison term.

People have lost hope in any meaningful reform of the system. And when you look at the slogans of the last four years, you see that they are aimed at the system itself.

The protests, regardless of the direct cause and regardless of the region, have a single demand: regime change. The resentment and desire for change is widespread throughout the country.

Protesters in Abadan chant: “We made a mistake in carrying out the revolution”. They are referring to the 1978 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty.

‘People have said “Death to Khameini”‘
Hajati continued:

The slogans can be divided into three categories:

There are slogans that target the highest level of power: people have said “Death to Khamenei”, Iran’s supreme leader.

Others are against every pillar of the Islamic Republic’s ideology that relies on him. For example, they use the slogan: “No to Gaza, no to Palestine, we will sacrifice [only] for Iran”, or “Our enemy is here, they are lying, it is not America”.

The third part consists of slogans in favour of the Pahlavi dynasty [Editor’s note: The former ruler of Iran who was overthrown in the 1978 revolution by Islamists and leftist political groups].

Protests in Shadegan, a small town in southwestern Iran. Published on June 1.

The deep corruption is something that I observed firsthand myself. This demand for overthrowing the system is based on the common experiences of people like me, who thought we could make a change from the inside, until experience proved otherwise.

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