Two years ago, on January 8, 2020, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired two missiles at a civilian passenger plane, knocking it out of the skies over Tehran. All 176 people onboard were killed, including 29 children. To this day, their families and loved ones continue to seek justice and accountability from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The below is a chronology of some of the key events that took place in the 730 days since the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752.
Janaury 2020: The Crash, Denial, Coercion – and a Confession
At 6.15am on January 8, 2020, Flight PS752, a passenger plane carrying 176 passengers and crew hailing from Iran, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom came crashing down minutes after takeoff, killing all those onboard.
The incident came at a time of heightened tensions with the US following the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani and an Iranian attack on a US airbase in Iraq. Iranian government officials, including the president and head of the Civil Aviation Authority, initially blamed the crash on a technical issue. This was questioned within hours by the Ukrainian government, with Ottawa also suggesting the plane might have been shot down.
In violation of international law, Iranian officials then immediately allowed the crash site to be tampered with, clearing much of the wreckage in the early hours of the morning and confiscating the victims' belongings.
The next day, the US government said based on its analysis of satellite images, a rocket or surface-to-air missile had been fired at the plane. Independent media including Bellingcat geolocated the launch to a location inside Tehran.
In the face of mounting international pressure and after three days of denial, on the morning of January 11, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces announced stated that the IRGC Aerospace Force had fired at the aircraft in "unintentional human error".
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force, then appeared on Iranian state television, saying he had alerted the authorities to the shooting-down of PS752 on the morning of January 8. " I immediately informed the authorities on the Wednesday morning," he said. "I was told we had hit a target, but the circumstances made me a little sceptical. I was in the west of the country, but I immediately came back to Tehran. On the way, I called the authorities and said that this had happened, and that I thought it was possible we had shot down our own plane."
Following the announcement, public protests and memorial events for the civilians killed were held in front of Tehran's Amirkabir and Sanati Sharif Universities. Those present demanded the resignation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Republic Armed Forces. The participants, many of whom were students, were arrested and prosecuted by the authorities.
February 2020: Damage Control
The then-Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, attended a meeting with his Canadian counterpart mediated by Oman. During the discussion, Zarif said the IRGC’s having shot down a passenger plane should not become “politicized”.
On February 2, the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency released an audio file it said featured an Iranian commercial pilot, flying from Shiraz to Tehran, telling Air Traffic Control in Tehran that he had seen a missile fired on a passing plane, asking for clarification as to what had happened. This meant the Iranian Civil Aviation Authority of Iran could not have been unaware of the nature of what had happened.
The Ukrainian government asked for the black box flight recorders from the plane to be recovered, and their contents analyzed, as a matter of priority. But Tehran claimed that “due to US sanctions”, the technology was not available in Iran for their contents to be fully read. Javad Zarif stated firmly that the flight recorders would not be taken overseas. The refusal was met with a joint statement from Britain, Canada, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sweden urging the Islamic Republic not to interfere with the information stored.
May 2020: Kiev Casts Doubt on Tehran’s Sincerity
In a video call with the Canadian Minister of Transport, the Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure accused Iran of concealing the real reasons for the downing of the plane.
July 2020: Black Boxes Relinquished; A Warning from the EU
Ukraine announced that if the Islamic Republic of Iran did not fulfil its obligations, it would take the issue of the downing of PS752 to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Seven months after the incident, the Islamic Republic finally committed to sending the black boxes to France for the flight recordings to be transcribed. They were duly sent to the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety in Paris.
At the time Flight 752 took off, Iranian airspace had still been open despite the possibility of military conflict. Also in July, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency issued a warning that civilian aircraft were under threat in Iranian airspace due to poor coordination.
August 2020: Iranian Insurance Chief Washes Hands of PS752
A delegation from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, headed by deputy minister Mohsen Baharvand, traveled to Ukraine for the first time to jointly examine the technical and legal aspects of the downing of Flight 752. Until that time, Iranian officials had refused bilateral talks with Ukraine.
Concurrently, Iranian officials held that the responsibility for paying any damages to Ukraine for the aircraft would lie with European insurance companies, not Iran. Gholamreza Soleimani, director-general of Central Insurance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, said: " Ukrainian aircraft are covered by European insurance companies in Ukraine. The damage to the downed aircraft must be paid for by the same companies." The statement was criticized by officials in Kiev.
September 2020: Not One, but Two Missiles Fired on PS752, Recordings Reveal
More than 220 days after the Flight 752 disaster, it emerged that based on information extracted from the flight recorders, the IRGC had fired not one but two missiles on the plane, 30 seconds apart. Furthermore, the passengers and crew were still alive after the first missile struck the aircraft. The recordings also revealed the plane was travelling according to its planned route without any reported defects: contrary to IRGC officials’ statements, it had not deviated from the flightpath.
Family members of several of the PS752 victims in Canada filed a lawsuit against the government of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, and senior IRGC commanders.
October 2020: Calls for Dismissal of IRGC Aerospace Force Commander
Bilateral talks between Iranian and Ukrainian officials continued. Members of the Association of Families of Flight 752 Victims demanded the removal of IRGC Aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, and the opportunity to meet Ukrainian diplomats personally. Mohsen Baharvand, the then-Iranian deputy foreign minister, tried to break up a protest by victims’ families in Tehran and was told to send his Ukrainian counterpart instead. Iran promised to publish its official report into the tragedy by January 2021.
December 2020: Tehran Accused of Withholding Evidence
Following a meeting with the ambassador of the Islamic Republic, the deputy prosecutor-general of Ukraine announced Iran had yet to deliver evidence from the crash site as promised, including a tablet held by one of the crewmembers that had been recovered from the scene.
January 2021: The First Anniversary
Devastated family members and loved ones of the 176 killed held vigils in their home countries and inside Iran, including near the walled-off crash site. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, designated January 8 a National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Air Disasters.
In late January, Tehran’s military prosecutor, Gholamabbas Torkim, announced that the formal investigation into Flight 752 had ended. He stated the firing of the two missiles, shortly after 6am and 23 seconds apart, had been the result of “a gross error by the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ defense system” and “forgetfulness”. He said one person had been arrested in connection with the incident, declining to name them.
February 2021: Zarif’s Admissions
In an audio file leaked to CBS News, Javad Zarif was reported to have said it was “not at all unlikely” that PS752 was intentionally shot down. The then-foreign minister also conceded that the truth would never be revealed by those at the highest levels of Iran’s government and military: “There are reasons it will never be revealed... If they do, it will open doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say."
In a damning letter to Tehran, penned in December and released to the public in February, UN experts said Iranian officials committed multiple human rights violations in both the downing of PS752 and their handling of the disaster. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard accused the IRGC of failing to follow “the most basic” safety procedures, and Tehran of “looting” the crash site, withholding evidence and failing to give an adequate explanation as to what had happened, prolonging the families’ pain.
March 2022: Iran’s Final Report Blames Equipment
After months of delay, the Islamic Republic released its final technical report into the downing of Flight 752. Running to more than 250 pages and entitled “Accident Investigation”, it concluded that PS752 was shot down because an air defense unit mistook the civilian aircraft as a threat, because of a misalignment of the missile launcher's radar. Ukraine's foreign minister called the report "unilateral", "selective" and "deceitful", and Canada's foreign and transport ministers called it "incomplete".
April 2021: Assessing Intentionality
The Secretary of the National Defense and Security Council of Ukraine, tasked with overseeing the Ukrainian government’s investigation into the Flight 752 disaster, stated that in his view, the Islamic Republic had deliberately shot down the plane in a bid to prevent a cycle of military tension with the United States.
May 2021: Landmark Canadian Court Ruling
In a landmark ruling, the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario determined that “on the balance of probabilities” the IRGC had deliberately shot down Flight 752. The judge also ruled that the incident had been an act of terrorism. Full indemnity costs were awarded to the family members of Flight 752 victims who were plaintiffs in the case.
November 2021: Ten Put on Trial in Tehran
A full 20 months after the downing of Flight 752, 10 people were put on trial in Iran for their alleged part in the disaster. The first hearing took place behind closed doors, to the chagrin on families, and the identities of the 10 accused were not made public, leading to some of those affected to denounce the trial as a “show”.
December 2021: New Deadline Issued
The four countries making up the International Coordination and Response Group for Flight 752, Canada, Sweden, the UK and Ukraine, issued a joint statement on Thursday, December 16 asking Tehran to confirm its willingness to engage in talks on reparations for families. The deadline set was January 5, 2022 – after which, the statement said, the parties would have to “seriously consider other actions within the framework of international law”.
January 2021: The Second Anniversary; Compensation Awarded in Canada
The Superior Court of Justice in Ontario awarded $107 million in damages to the families of six people killed in the downing of Flight 752. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mark Arnold, said his team would look to seize assets in Canada and abroad. It came as memorial services were held in Canada and the other affected countries for the 176 people killed aboard the plane. On January 5, the deadline issued to Tehran passed. It is not yet known whether or noted Iranian officials responded to the invitation to negotiate.
Victims’ families across the globe will commemorate their loved ones in the coming days on the second anniversary of the tragedy.