On Sunday, June 5, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported that the former governor of Khuzestan province, Gholamreza Shariati, had left Iran. The embattled politician was said to have “legally” bought a one-way ticket to the UAE.
The news came barely two weeks after the collapse of the Metropol complex in Abadan, Khuzestan. The unfinished 10-storey Tower 2 of Metropol came crashing down on the city's busiest shopping street on May 23 after years of allegations that building safety regulations on the site were being ignored, with the developer given a free pass due to corruption in the local authority.
Sowlat Mortazavi, President Ebrahim Raisi’s executive vice president, has since confirmed that both Shariati and Abadan’s former mayor have been charged in connection with the disaster. It came as the bodies of five more victims were pulled from the rubble, bringing the official death toll from the tragedy to 84.
A middle-aged man in a rumpled shirt, his tear-streaked face haloed in disheveled white hair, is wailing aloud for his two sons his two sons at the foot of the Metropol debris mountain in Abadan. Amir Behbahani, 35 and Rahman Behbahani, 33, both master electricians who had previously been working on the construction site, had been missing for two weeks. On Sunday, June 5, one of them was found.
“Yesterday, around 11 o’clock, they brought up another body,” a person close to Behbahani family told IranWire. “At first they thought it was somebody else. Then at the mortuary, they found an ID and a bank card with the name Rahman in the pocket, and they called the family there to identify the body.”
This, they said, took some time in itself. “Nobody had the courage to go. Eventually it was the uncle that went and confirmed it was Rahman. His parents are devastated. I was at their home for just 10 minutes; I couldn't take it and left. His young wife and his other two brothers can't believe it. For what? Rahman was an athlete, a martial arts practitioner. Why their lives were wasted like this?”
In another video posted before Rahman’s body was found, his father - still refusing to wear black in the hope his children would be found alive - wept openly into the camera. "I have no money and no power," he sobbed. "My two sons are under the debris. I wouldn't be so broken if I lost them to war. I would have said that they were killed to defend my home, my country. But, for the love of God, they were killed for bread.”
The source said that both Rahman and Amir had officially completed their work at Metropol the day before the disaster. "They hadn't gone there to work that day. They'd been called in to settle their accounts, and they were there when the building collapsed."
Rahman had been married for close to a year. At the time of writing, the family had yet to decide whether to bury him alone, or to try to recover his older brother's body as well.
How Many Victims?
A major discrepancy is emerging between the official death toll as reported in Iranian media, and the numbers reported by eyewitnesses in Abadan. Payman Shajirati, a member of the Iranian Free Workers' Union, told IranWire part of the problem was poor record-keeping on the part of the developer.
“The uncertainty about the number of workers in the building when it collapsed," he said, "is the result of shortcomings in Iran’s labor laws. Most likely there were many day laborers who did not have to sign in or out with the main contractor. They were managed by a foreman who functioned as the second- or third-level contractor. If there was any list of these day laborers, only the foreman would have had it.”
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, Abadan Fire Department estimated the number trapped under the rubble at 70 to 80. An informed source in Abadan, who asked not to be named, told IranWire this could be a gross understatement: "In the first few hours after the disaster, firemen had received 50 body bags from the scene. These bags are the property of the Fire Department, meaning that they must be returned to the Department after the coroner and the morgue are done with [the bodies] and they're buried. As of now, though, none of these body bags have been returned.”
They added: “A fireman who was on the scene from the early hours said a lot of bodies were discovered soon afterwards, but they were taken to a secure location, to be turned over to the families gradually until things cooled down. The reason is that Khuzestan’s governor and high-level officials wanted to keep the number of the dead and missing secret.”
Flight of the Named Culprits
The owner of the Metropol building, property tycoon Hossein Abdolbaghi, was first reported to have been arrested, then to have fled Iran, then finally to have been identified as among the dead, in the first 48 hours after the disaster. Gholamreza Shariati, the governor of Khuzestan, was also among the wanted before he reportedly left the country this week.
“Mr. Shariati has travelled to Dubai to buy lab equipment,” his wife, Maryam Mohebi, told reporters. She added that her husband was originally scheduled to return on Wednesday, but would be returning sooner to take part in a mourning ceremony. “He left the country legally. If he were banned from leaving the country he would not have been allowed to board the plane at the airport."
In the past few years, Gholamreza Shariati played an important role in making Abdolbaghi Holdings a success. His close relationship with Hossein Abdolbaghi had been made much of in the media. Despite what Raisi's vice president has said, the judiciary-affiliated Mizan News Agency reports that for the time being at least, none of the investigative commissions sent by the Iranian government, parliament, the attorney general or other responsible agencies have yet submitted an official report on “the negligence and direct or indirect culpability of Khuzestan’s former governor".
Journalist and activists in Abadan remain astounded at the fact that Shariati was apparently able to cross the border so effortlessly. The journalist Maryam Shokrani tweeted: “According to the judiciary, Gholamreza Shariati is not guilty in Abadan’s Metropol disaster and no complaints against him have been filed, so he has left the country.
"Abadan’s mayor has resigned and it is not clear what his next job will be. And Abdolbaghi is dead! The whole case has been so easily wrapped up. It is only the people who are being punished for it.”
Mandana Sadeghi, a well-known cultural figure in Abadan who has written extensively about the Abdolbaghi brothers' affairs in the past, tweeted: “Whether Shariati returns tomorrow or not, the situation surrounding Metropol remains a mess. Read the interviews and reports of the previous days. They all talked about the footprints of a former governor or governors. How come now everything has changed?”