The evidence suggests that when the 10-storey Metropol Twin Towers Complex collapsed in the Iranian city of Abadan, property developer Hossein Abdol-Baghi was one of the 32 victims.
There was an official DNA match. He was pictured in the building before the collapse. His family have been seen weeping on television.
But that has not been enough to convince those who have taken to the streets over the past week to protest against corruption. Deeply suspicious of the official narrative, they say his influential backers helped him flee the country and escape their wrath.
“It is too obvious that he is not dead. If his face and body were so smashed to necessitate a hasty DNA test, why were his identification cards in his pocket unscathed?” said Reza, an unemployed 28-year-old man in Abadan.
“Why was Abdol-Baghi allowed to build such a non-standard building?” he added, implying it was because of his links to high-level officials.
The view that Abdol-Baghi must have escaped speaks to the level of anger at corruption in the Islamic republic, where people are already struggling with rising prices and a battered economy. With inflation at nearly 40 per cent, talks with western powers over a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for the lifting of US sanctions have also stalled.
The province of Khuzestan, sitting on Iran’s biggest oil and gas reserves, was the centre of anti-regime protests in 2019. Demonstrations against the rising cost of fuel ended in violence, with more than 300 people dead across the country, according to Amnesty International.
Local people say not only has their share of the oil-rich province’s natural wealth been meagre but that new development projects have also benefited the corrupt.
“Discrimination and corruption of officials bother people in Khuzestan the most. We walk on oil but our houses are still made of mud and bricks,” said Hosna, who left her native Abadan for Tehran. “Such incidents are a pretext for people to go to the streets and get rid of their pent-up anger.”
Iranian leaders have acknowledged that corruption is a significant problem and have promised to deal with it. They blame it on dishonest individuals and say it is not an institutional problem. Analysts say a generation of young businessmen has emerged, loyal to the regime. Their expensive cars and big houses often rankle with ordinary Iranians.
“In every city, there are some ‘Hossein Abdol-Baghis’,” wrote Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician in Tehran on Instagram. “They have certain things in common: they have astronomical wealth, run charities, hold religious ceremonies . . . are close to members of the parliament and city councils . . . have several major construction projects . . . As simple as that.”
The authorities’ delayed response to the tragedy has also angered protesters. Official condolences were delivered a few days after the building collapsed. The government of Ebrahim Raisi called Sunday a national day of mourning.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been the main target of slogans in Abadan. Protesters have also used a new revolutionary hymn, “Hello Commander”, which has been widely promoted on social media, to signal their disapproval. Many post videos of the disaster on social media, saying “Hello Commander, see this”.
In one film on social media, a woman walks through the ranks of the riot police in Abadan. She can be overheard asking them: “You are [sent by] ‘Hello Commander’? . . . Are we rioters? All of us?”
The anger “is rooted in the extreme poverty in this very rich province”, said Ahmad, 32, who has migrated to Tehran from Khuzestan to look for a job in the hospitality sector. “Even for oil companies, non-locals are recruited. Everywhere you go, you see lots of young men standing in the streets idle and chatting and smoking.”
There are no reports yet of any deaths during the protests. Unofficial accounts say security forces have fired live ammunition and birdshot and used tear gas. “It is a disastrous situation. There are demonstrations every night,” said a resident of Abadan who did not want their name published. “All main streets are surrounded [by security forces].”
Authorities have said they will take action against those responsible for the tragedy. Some officials, including the mayor, were arrested on suspicion of failing to oversee the building project properly.
But Reza doubts the protests will bring change. “People will protest a bit more and soon they have to go back home and continue their miserable life while Abdol-Baghi enjoys his luxurious life in Dubai,” he said.