Families who lost loved ones in the downing of Flight 752 have demanded to know why visas were granted to the Iranian national football team for a World Cup friendly in Canada.
Canada Soccer, the governing body of the sport in Canada, gave the green light to a men's exhibition game in Vancouver currently set to take place on June 5.
The Association of Families of Flight 752 Victims says to host Iran would be an insult to the relatives of the 176 people killed aboard the plane, which was knocked out of the skies by two IRGC missiles on January 8, 2020. Among the dead were 29 children.
In an op-ed published in The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, spokesman Hamid Esmaeilion, a resident of Canada whose wife Parisa and nine-year-old daughter Reera were among the victims, wrote: "In Iran, the game is extremely popular - and inherently political. Soccer there is controlled by the IRGC, which is expected to send members to accompany the Iranian team to Canada."
Pointing out that the regime also continues to harass and intimidate Iranians living in Canada, he said: "It is shocking that Canada Soccer is inviting the Iranian national team into our country.
"This invitation is an affront to those who lost loved ones in the downing of Flight PS752... If our country is as serious as it claims about justice and holding countries to account for crimes against Canadians, the game must be called off."
Other family members felt the same. Nima Neyestani, who is based in Toronto and lost his 32-year-old fiancé, Shadi Jamshidi, in the disaster, wrote on Twitter: "Friendly match with Iran is outright an insult to all Canadians! The Iranian regime is murderous, killing people on the ground and in the air every day! What’s next? Friendly game with Russia?"
Ami Aghbali, whose brother Iman died in the crash at the age of just 28, wrote: "There are 211 members of #FIFA, but [Canada Soccer president] Nick Bontis decided to invite the one responsible for killing 176 people... Team Canada's integrity is in jeopardy when #IRGC members are welcomed."
Canadian Premier Concedes Match 'Not a Very Good Idea'
In January this year Canada's highest civil court awarded C$107m to the families of six people killed on Flight 752. So far, however, no broader-reaching settlement for all the victims' families has been reached, despite the efforts of the Canadian, Swedish, Ukrainian and UK governments.
A military trial for 10 individuals said to bear responsibility began behind closed doors in Iran last year. But if the judge in the case - himself a dubious appointment - reached a verdict, it was never made public.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeaux was questioned about the move by reporters on Tuesday. He replied: "This was a choice by Soccer Canada. I think it wasn't a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team to Canada, but that's something the organizers are going to have to explain."
Prime Minister Trudeau says a soccer friendly between Canada and Iran next month in Vancouver is not a very good idea, and is something the organizers will need to explain. https://t.co/03OHMpLjnv pic.twitter.com/hGoEN6rPTI— CTV News (@CTVNews) May 17, 2022
On Tuesday, Canada Soccer issued a statement in which it stood by the decision: "We believe in the power of sport and its ability to bring people from different backgrounds and political beliefs together for a common purpose."
Tehran Accused of 'Sportswashing'
Javad Soleimani, another member of the Association who lost his wife Elnaz in the disaster, said Canada Soccer had failed to understand their point. "We are against the Iranian national coming to Canada because sports and politics must be kept separate,” he told IranWire. “In recent years the Islamic Republic has tried to use sports, especially football, for propaganda purposes - to wash away its crimes."
Outside of Canada, he pointed out, “There have been many cases when sports teams have been excluded from competitions because their governments have violated human rights. The most recent example is the Russian national football team and Russian athletes. Our demands are clear."
Soleimani says that a month ago, the Association learned that "lobbyists" on behalf of Tehran in Canada were pushing for a friendly game ahead of the World Cup. It came at the same time as an IRGC-backed domestic media campaign strove to vilify the Flight 752 victims' families inside Iran.
Like Hamid Esmaeilion, Soleimani is categorical that sportspeople would not be the only ones attending if the match went ahead. As per the Sports Ministry's own regulations, "Security and intelligence agents always accompany the national team players abroad, and these agents belong to the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry. We cannot accept opening Canadian borders to the agents of the Revolutionary Guards. For us, this is a security issue as well.”