Javad Soleimani was the husband of Elnaz Nabiyi, a passenger on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 that on January 8 was shot down over Tehran by two anti-aircraft missiles launched by the Revolutionary Guards. Nabiyi, 29, an Iranian PhD student at Canada’s Alberta School of Business, was returning to Canada after spending her vacation in Iran.
In a Skype interview with IranWire, Soleimani spoke about the experiences of families of the victims since that day.
Soleimani says a cabinet member told him that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani knew on January 8 that the Revolutionary Guards had brought down the plane – that he is lying when he says he did not know this until the afternoon of January 10. He adds that, despite the fact that their loved ones have been murdered by the authorities, the government continues to harass the families and in some cases relatives have been arrested, tortured and even sexually assaulted.
A summary of IranWire’s interview with Javad Soleimani appears below.
Javad Soleimani traveled to Iran to identify his wife’s body and to bury her. He says his Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Tehran was turned around midway and, as a result, he and relatives of other victims arrived in Iran much later than when they had hoped. He points out that no domestic media outlet agreed to publish his comments about his experience.
According to Soleimani, he arrived in Tehran on the morning of Saturday, January 11, just as the Revolutionary Guards took responsibility for shooting down the Ukrainian airliner.
“When I arrived, the Guards confessed that they had shot down the plane,” he says. “They had no choice because Canada and other countries had broken the news earlier. The Revolutionary Guards, the Martyrs Foundation and the leader of Friday prayers were ready and they sent people Elnaz’s parents home in Zanjan. We were unhappy that they visited. But we avoided a clash so that the situation wouldn’t worsen and that we could recover Elnaz’s body.”
Robbing the Dead
Elnaz’s remains were delivered to Soleimani on January 12. He transported the body to the city of Zanjan. At Tehran’s Criminal Court, Judge Shahriari had told him that the body had been identified, that her wedding ring and some of her personal effects were with the medical examiner and that Soleimani could take delivery of them along with the remains.
But “at the medical examiner they told me they did not have any personal effects of my wife. No ring, no nothing. I insisted on seeing my wife’s body to identify her. When I saw her, it was burnt, but her hands were intact below the wrist. That means someone at the medical examiner’s office in Kahrizak had taken the ring. This happened to all the families [of people killed in the crash]. They had delivered suitcases or bags but jewelry, ash and other valuables that families knew their loved ones were carrying had disappeared.”
The stranger thing, says Soleimani, is that the valuables in the suitcases of 84 passengers not loaded on the plane are missing as well.
“They had said the plane was too heavy because of the necessary fuel,” Soleimani said. “They removed these suitcases from the flight, to send them later on a later plane, but laptops and other valuables in those suitcases were later missing. This shows the insolence and the inefficiency of the whole lot of them. They showed no mercy even regarding the valuable belongings of our loved one. This happened to many families.”
Javad Soleimani says that after Elnaz’s remains were transferred to Zanjan, the family’s priority was to bury his wife without getting into a dispute with the authorities.
“The Martyrs Foundation was trying to impose its own preferences on the ceremonies and insisted that Elnaz must be buried in the area dedicated to martyrs,” Soleimani says. “They even met with some relatives of Elnaz and warned them that this was an order. We resisted and Elnaz was buried in the family plot.”
Murdered not Martyred
Soleimani says he has the highest regard for all those Iranians who died during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, who died defending their country and are called “martyrs” today. But his family has resisted letting Elnaz be called a “martyr” because his wife and other passengers on the plane were not involved in a war.
“They were murdered,” says Soleimani. “People who boarded that flight to return to their studies, jobs and families, they were all murdered. The authorities wanted to exploit the victims by calling our loved ones ‘martyrs’ but we resisted and did not allow this to happen.”
According to Soleimani, during Elnaz’s funeral the commander of the Revolutionary Guards in Zanjan and a representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were standing outside the mosque – posting as hosts of the funeral. Soleimani says he could not tolerate such an action.
“I could not bear this so I asked them to go and sit inside the mosque,” Soleimani says. “At first they refused, we we argued, and I forced them to go and sit inside. I told them that ‘Even Yazid [the second Umayyad caliph who killed Hossein, the third Shia Imam and the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, in 680 AD] participated in the Imam Hossein’s mourning rituals. You are doing things that Yazid himself did not do.’ I told this to the leader of Friday prayers in Zanjan on the day of the funeral. The government knows that we, Elnaz’s family, had no affection for them. They pressured us to register her as a ‘martyr’ but we did not yield. But the pressure continues.”
Soleimani says that, as he was leaving to visit his wife’s grave and then depart Zanjan for Tehran, he received a call from Zanjan’s Intelligence Bureau.
“They said that I had [argued] with the leader of Friday prayers, and had written things on Instagram, and therefore I must explain myself. I said I was not in Zanjan and then left for Tehran. When I returned to Tehran, I was told that the Intelligence Bureau agents were searching for me in different parts of Zanjan. In Tehran I did not go to my parents’ home but stayed with a friend. I was forced to leave Iran on January 17 and I could not participate in mourning ceremonies in Tehran and Kerman which were planned for the coming days.”
An Outright Lie
Soleimani says that the pressures on the families, including his, continue but that he cannot talk about everything that has happened until the time is right.
“The important point is that we, the families of the victims of Flight 752, hold the Iranian government responsible for everything that has happened. We do not differentiate among various parts of the government. [Foreign Minister] Javad Zarif and [President] Hassan Rouhani claim that they only learned about the missile attack on the plane on the Friday. But this is an outright lie. A member of the Iranian cabinet told me explicitly that, within 24 hours after the plane was brought down, Rouhani had told him ‘We know that our own missiles shot down the plane.’ The recorded conversation between a pilot of Asman Airline and the control tower shows that Iran’s Civil Aviation Organizations also knew this but covered it up.”
According to Soleimani, those families who are publicly asking for justice are the ones who are under pressure and have been threatened.
“An Iranian official who is involved in this case called me through Instagram and I have a recording of his voice,” he says. “He insisted that the Revolutionary Guards had lied to them and had not permitted them to publish the news. I told him that it makes no difference to us which part of the Iranian government has murdered our loved ones. It is only logical that a person who has killed somebody on the street, even unintentionally, must be arrested and questioned. Only afterwards can he accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness.”
“The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic is the commander-in-chief of all Iranian armed forces and, consequently, he must apologize for such a crime committed by his underlings even if they have committed it unintentionally,” says Soleimani. “But during the Friday Prayers [after the crash] he talked about it for less than 20 seconds and did not apologize either.”
Soleimani believes the Iranian government arrests and suppresses not only political activists but anybody that it feels opposes its own line.
“Some have criticized me on Instagram, saying that my call for people to demand justice is a futile move,” he says. “To be honest, I have no expectations. But my own experiences have taught me it is wrong to believe that if we stay silent and say we have nothing to do with politics then the government will leave us alone. This incompetent and murderous government puts the lives of everybody in danger, not only the lives of political activists or protesters. A clear example of this is the coronavirus. The government could have taken steps to mitigate the damage done to Iran by this virus.”
Torture and Sexual Harassment
Soleimani says that the harassment of victims’ family does not end there. An example is the aunt of Amir Hossein Saeedinia, one of the victims, with whom he has spoken.
“While she was in Iran, Amir Hossein’s mother Leyla Latifi took to the street and loudly demanded justice. The video has been watched by many people and even Canada’s foreign minister has talked about it. The family lives in Mehrshahr in Karaj. Mehrshahr’s Friday prayers leader, its commander of the Revolutionary Guards and the Martyrs Foundation of Karaj have put the family there under a great deal of pressure. Amir Hossein’s father was forced to give an interview under the pressure of agents who had gone to his home. His mother was hospitalized for five days but she did not stop talking. She was summoned several times and was warned but she did not retreat. Eventually they threatened and sexually harassed Amir Hossein’s aunt who was very active in reporting on these events.”
Soleimani says that the harassment of the families has become worse at every step.
“Firstly, they did not give [families] the victims’ personal effects. Then they summoned them to interrogations. Then they started threatening. Then they sexually harassed them and now they have started physical torture. I am in contact with some of the families and there is evidence for this claim. I know who has been tortured but, for the moment, I cannot give names.”
According to Soleimani, a group of families have lodged complaints with a court in Canada and Elnaz’s family may join them. But the families are also trying to work with a legal team to convict Iranian officials for committing this crime and they are evaluating their options.
“A number of legal teams have stepped forward and say that they can help with getting damages. But for many families the issue is not compensation,” he says. “They are after justice and they want to hold Iranian officials responsible, to identify the culprits of this crime and to convict them for the crime that they have committed. We want to file a complaint against the government of Iran and Ukraine International Airline because they should not have been flying under those conditions even though they were permitted to fly.”
Soleimani believes that the Islamic Republic’s behavior after this crime was not the behavior of somebody who has committed a crime out of negligence or human error.
“The treatment of the families by the Islamic Republic, their behavior regarding the black box and their behavior on the crash scene when they immediately bulldozed the evidence of the disaster, all these show that the question might go further than human error,” he says.
“I have no family and no friends in Canada and I must especially thank all the wonderful people who stood by me in Edmonton and helped me,” Soleimani says. “I could not have survived without these lovely people.”
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