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Families seek justice for Iran plane crash victims

Dr. Hamed Esmaeilion, wears a pin with the faces of the wife and daughter

Image source, Getty Images

For Hamed Esmaeilion, life took a tragic turn two years ago, when his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera took off from Tehran aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 to head back to Canada via Kyiv.

“I was preparing the house for them to come back,” Mr Esmaeilion recalls, so it would be ready for when he would pick them up from the airport the next day.

He would never see them alive again.


“Now my life is empty. ‘Emptiness’ is the word,” Mr Esmaeilion told the BBC. “That’s the only thing I live with. It’s the only thing I can focus on.”

Both Parisa and Reera were among the 176 people killed when a pair of Iranian anti-aircraft missiles struck the airliner on 8 January 2020, sending it plummeting into a park and fields about nine miles (15km) north of the airport in Tehran.

The incident came amid heightened tensions in the region following the US killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian missile strike at Iraqi bases hosting US forces.

Mr Esmaeilion and others who have lost loved ones say they are still seeking justice – and hoping the Canadian government does more to help.

“The only thing I have now is this case,” said Mr Esmaeilion, now the president and spokesman of the Canada-based Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims. “It’s the same for the majority of the family members.”

Of those who perished in the downing of the plane, 138 had ties to Canada, including 55 citizens and 30 permanent residents. The dead included 29 children, 53 university students, four newlywed couples, and eight entire families.

A document released by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation in March reiterated the government’s claim – first made the previous year – that “human error” was to blame for the downing of the airliner.

Later in June, the Canadian government released the findings of a report into the downing of PS752, which found that while Iran’s government was “fully responsible”, there was no evidence to suggest that that the incident was premeditated.

And in November, Iran’s judiciary announced that 10 Iranian military personnel were facing court proceedings for the downing of PS752. The families of those killed have yet to be told who the men on trial are and what role they are alleged to have played. Hearings in the trial are expected to continue into 2022.

Ukraine’s ambassador in Tehran was invited to attend the trial, but declined, citing Iran’s failure to meet its “obligations under international law” and provide information.

The Canadian report stands in stark contrast to another released by the Association of Families. It accuses Iran of using passenger flights “as human shields against possible American attacks, by deliberately not closing the [Iranian] airspace to civilian flights”.

The report also accuses Iranian authorities of tampering with electronic devices found in the wreckage of PS752 and of mishandling and misidentifying the remains of victims.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from the BBC.

Daniel Ghods-Esfahani standing alongside his girlfriend Saba Saadat, who died on PS752

Image source, Handout

Edmonton resident Daniel Ghods-Esfahani – whose 21-year-old girlfriend, Saba Saadat, died on PS752 along with her sister and mother – told the BBC that family members of the victims “don’t have many expectations” from the Iranian government.

“Just look at the nature of that regime. They’re not known to be very transparent about their doings,” he said. “Justice doesn’t even seem to be a word in their vocabulary.”

On the other hand, Mr Ghods-Esfahani said that the families have “high expectations” from the Canadian government.

“As a Canadian myself, I expect the government to stand up for its citizens and to stand up for the ideals of justice,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the past few years, we haven’t had the Canadian government doing that to a very effective extent.”

The family members of the victims want the government to increase pressure on Iran to release more evidence, an international investigation and appeal to the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, or to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

They want a criminal investigation to be opened by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, economic sanctions aimed at specific Iranian officials and the inclusion of the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Canada’s list of designated terrorist organisations. Currently, only the IRGC’s Quds Force – which manages its clandestine operations abroad – is included.

In an effort to hold someone accountable for the downing of PS752, family members of the fallen have taken a variety of different legal pathways, with targets including Ukrainian Airlines, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and missile operator ‘John Doe’.

On 3 January, an Ontario court awarded $107m (£79m) in damages to the families of six victims after the judge deemed the incident to be an intentional act of terrorism. A lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Mark Arnold, later told CBC News that collecting the money would be very difficult and that he’s “begging” Canada to collaborate with families to hold Iran accountable.

Simultaneously Canada – along with the Ukraine, UK and Sweden – has sought reparations from the Iranian government under international law.

Iran so far refused to negotiate. On 6 January, all four countries involved announced that they were abandoning these efforts, saying they had determined that attempts to negotiate with Iran are “futile” and vowing to “focus on subsequent actions to take to resolve this matter in accordance with international law”.

The countries did not specify what additional steps they would be considering in the future.

In a statement sent to the BBC, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada called the downing of PS752 a “Canadian tragedy” and said they “remain committed to seeking answers and pursuing justice”. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also met privately with the families on Friday.

For some of those who lost family members or friends in the disaster, Canada’s response has been inadequate.

“We want them to fight for Canadians,” Mr Esmaeilion said. “This is the second worst terrorist attack against Canadians in the history of Canada….they could have done much more. We’re still waiting.”

In the meantime, households and entire communities across Canada have been left without answers.

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Among the towns most impacted was Edmonton, where the tight-knit Iranian-Canadian community lost 13 of its members.

“The biggest thing that I think really shocked everyone was that it was really easy for every single Iranian-Canadian in Canada to see that it could have been them,” said Reza Akbari, the former president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton.

As an example, Mr Akbari – who lost a friend on PS752 – recalled that his wife had flown from Tehran a little more than two weeks before the crash. He said they had discussed the possibility of her staying in Iran longer and booking a ticket on PS752.

“I still get goosebumps and shake when I think about it,” he added. “Our life could have ended up totally different.”

Families of PS752 victims standing outside Alberta's parliament building holding placards and images of those who died on PS752

Image source, Reza Akbari

Mr Esmaeilion, for his part, said the search for justice is the only thing that drives him forward two years on.

“It’s not only me. All the family members now are like airline technicians and international lawyers,” he added. “I can’t even focus on reading a book. That’s gone. But if something is related to the airplane, I can swallow it.”

“This is the most important thing. That’s my life.”


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