More than a year has passed since two missiles were fired at Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. But there is still no word on the perpetrators, or how they will be brought to justice.
In the face of mounting international pressure for accountability from the United Nations and Canada, an Iranian military prosecutor claimed on April 6 that 10 Iranian officials had been indicted and would soon face trial. But he did not name them and gave no further details.
In the meantime, criminal cases have been filed against dozens of student activists who are accused of attending a memorial service for the victims of the tragedy. On April 7, the first hearing took place in the trial of Zia Nabavi, a graduate student at Allameh Tabatabai University, as well as Ali Haghighat Javan and Amir Hossein Ali-Bakhshi, two members of the National Union of Islamic Organizations of Universities known as United Students.
On January 8, 2020, shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by two missiles, fired within a few seconds of each other by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC), killing all 176 people on board.
The Iranian government denied the missiles were the cause of the crash for three days. Eventually the IRGC’s Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged that the Ukrainian plane had been shot down and aerospace chief Amir-Ali Hajizadeh accepted responsibility, but said the incident was caused by "human error".
Shortly after his speech, university students across the country held campus rallies and vigils, lit candles and chanted slogans, protesting against the atrocity and calling for the perpetrators and those who ordered it to be prosecuted. Instead of going after the perpetrators, the security agencies arrested the students and charged them with security-related offences. Some have already been sentenced, and others are still awaiting trial.
“Conspiracy Against National Security”
According to a member of the National Union of Islamic Organizations of Universities, also known as United Students, the first hearing in the trial of Zia Nabavi, a graduate student at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, Ali Haghighat Javan, a member of the Arman Islamic Association at Tehran University of Science and Technology, and Amir Hossein Ali-Bakhshi, a student at the University of Tehran, was adjourned halfway through proceedings on April 7 due to a "formal defect" in the case.
"On Wednesday,” the student said, “the trial of three students who participated in a memorial rally for the people killed on the Ukrainian plane began. But on orders of Afshar, a judge at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, the case was returned to the investigating branch due to some formal defects. It is unknown at this time when the defects will be rectified for the case to return to court."
Hossein Ali-Bakhshi and Haghighat Javan were arrested by the IRGC’s military and security agency the Sarollah Headquarters in early March last year, almost a month after the protests had taken place. Shortly after their arrest, Nabavi, another student activist, was arrested in Tehran.
As Nabavi wrote on his Twitter page, his charges consisted of links to United Students, scattered tweets, and his participation in a memorial service for the Ukrainian plane crash victims. All three students were charged with "conspiracy against national security" and "propaganda against the regime."
Nabavi worked at Noshirvani University in Babol during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency. He was also a spokesperson for the Council for the Defense of the Right to Education, which advocates for higher education for Baha'i citizens and other marginalized groups. Nabavi has been arrested several times for these activities in the past, with his last eight-year prison sentence related to the Green Movement protests that erupted after the contested 2009 presidential election.
Quashing the Student Union
The United Students member told IranWire that the Revolutionary Guards, as the principal organization accused of downing the Ukrainian plane, have been putting pressure on the judge behind closed doors to sentence Nabavi, Haghighat Javan and Hossein Ali Bakhshi.
"The case of these three student activists is about 900 pages long,” he said, “and based on the information we have, some of the material these three people published on their personal social networks and statements issued by student associations are being used as evidence.
“According to the defendants’ lawyers, the name of the National Union of Islamic Organizations of Universities is mentioned repeatedly in the file. It is clear that the plaintiffs are displeased with these associations’ legal activities, and they intend to place the cost of their activities on these students' shoulders.
“According to our information, the officer from the Sarollah Headquarters met with the judge several times before the first court hearing. Although we are not aware of the content of these meetings, it seems likely that this was done with the aim of pressuring the judge to give the three students long sentences.”
Many Iranian universities' Islamic organizations were banned during the Ahmadinejad years to prevent them from organizing protests. In the last months of his tenure, student activists began to consider reviving them. In those days the Rehabilitation Council undertook the work of reactivating these associations.
The National Union of Islamic Organizations of Universities then began its work under the auspices of the Rehabilitation Council, after requesting permission from the Science Ministry under Hassan Rouhani. Although it has not received a permit in the almost eight years since, the union members consider their work to be lehal.
"Our union is by no means illegal,” the member told IranWire. “Our request for permission was submitted to many years ago, but we never received any response, either positive or negative. For this reason our activities are currently carried out informally as a union. The Science Ministry knows us by name, and its various officials address us by the same name."