They wait for their loved ones to arrive. They are looking forward to embracing them soon. They don’t know that their loved ones, passengers on Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752, will never come home.
It has been a year since Flight PS752, with 167 people onboard, was targeted by Revolutionary Guards, who shot the plane down with two missiles. Families of the victims of this tragedy and the public as a whole have not yet received a proper answer as to why and on whose orders this tragedy occurred. Many of the grieving say they live and breathe in the hope of getting justice for their loved ones. They include Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife Parisa and his 9-year-old daughter Reera, and Javad Soleimani, who mourns his wife Elnaz Nabiyi.
A few hours after the news broke on January 8 that the plane had crashed, Hamed Esmaeilion left for Iran to claim the bodies of his loved ones. He conducted his first interview at Frankfurt Airport. "I wish the cause of the crash could be a technical defect," he said, his eyes swollen with tears and despair.
An hour after he arrived in Iran, the General Staff of the Armed Forces issued a statement. Three days later, it issued another statement, admitting that the Revolutionary Guards had fired two missiles at the plane, causing the fatal crash.
Hamed Esmaeilion’s wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera died in the tragedy. Looking back to that first interview at Frankfurt Airport, I asked him if the plane had crashed due to a technical defect, how would life be different for him today?
"Honestly, I cannot judge where we would stand or what the situation would be if it had been a technical defect," he said. "But surely the situation would be different. Because what happened was organized crime. When you are faced with organized crime, the situation is different from when you face an accident or technical defect. We are talking about two very different situations."
Every day, the families, many of whom have united to work for justice as part of The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, confront the reality and impact of this crime, Esmaeilion says. "Every day of this year, the media made us even angrier by lying and giving false information. Instead of telling the truth, instead of the high-ranking commanders and the leader of the Islamic Republic, who is the commander of the military forces, appearing in court for the downing of the plane and telling what happened to our loved ones, they tell new lies every day. Even lower-ranking commanders — informed sources — have not appeared in court. We are talking about organized crime where not even the perpetrators are brought to justice, let alone those who ordered it. When we hear that they are only going to give a three-year prison sentence to the operator who fired the missiles, and that those who took to the streets to protest against the crime and light candles are sentenced to four, five or eight years in prison, what are we talking about? We are talking about organized crime in a world where words have no meaning, a world where there are no good words. We are talking about a dark world. Those who committed this crime seem to be impregnable. No one can ask or hear an answer from them."
Like Hamed Esmaeilion, Javad Soleimani prayed the cause of the crash was a technical defect. "Because five hours before the crash, the Islamic Republic had attacked the American base in Iraq, it was unbelievable that was the cause of the crash. But I said to myself, I pray to God the cause of the fall was a technical defect.’
Living for Justice, and for Revenge
Soleimani also says a situation involving a crime is very different from a situation where an accident has occurred. "One can cope with an accident more easily, but our loved ones were killed unjustly. The plane was on fire for three or four minutes. I do not know what the situation was like for the passengers of flight PS752 in those moments. The bodies of our loved ones were dismembered, so we realized that the cause of the crash was not a technical defect, but a rocket fire. Well, obviously we are angry. We are angry forever. This crime created a need for revenge in us. I do not speak for others, but I really live to take revenge, revenge on those who committed crimes and did not close down the airspace; those who fired; those who ordered; those who lied for three days; those who bulldozed the crime scene and looted the belongings of our loved ones — all who were involved in this crime."
Each day since January 8, 2020, Hamed Esmaeilion and Javad Soleimani and the other families of the victims of the plane crash have started their days hearing news about the tragedy: news from the officials of the Islamic Republic that, instead of healing their wounded hearts, only deepens their wounds, and their scars.
"Families get upset with every piece of news they publish, and they should be upset," says Hamed Esmaeilion. "We used to get increasingly confused, but now we are used to their false news. Learning from our experience, we do not react to any of this news. However, some news is still very upsetting, like the arguments they made about compensation or calling the passengers ‘martyrs’. This continues to anger families. But now we all know that this case has an international aspect and is ongoing anyway. They can say things to deceive the public as much as they want and [reach] a limited number of people inside the country, but they know they cannot defend themselves in a court."
Javad Soleimani gives an example of news that refreshes the families’ wounds: “Iraqi officials announced they would vacate the base. We say: how did they feel sorry for the American soldiers, but not for their own people enough to close the country's airspace? Under international law, entering airspace during a time of war and when the security in the skies is uncertain is a war crime. Some of their remarks are unbelievable and unacceptable. For example, they said the passenger plane was mistaken for a cruise missile. These lies make our pain worse."
Over the last year, the families of the victims of the downed plane have been repeatedly pressured by security forces. There have been numerous reports of them being summoned, detained and threatened. In November 2020, when the dissident activist Mehdi Amin was assassinated in Toronto, Canada, Hamed Esmaeilion, who is also based in Toronto, said he had also received death threats: "I also received threatening messages in June and July when we launched the petition 'Iran airspace is not safe,' and I had to inform the police. When I saw something else [tragic] happened in Toronto, I felt it might be a good time to make it public. The world must know the nature of the Islamic Republic. My personal opinion is that families in Iran should all talk about these threats, these phone calls, and these visits to their homes. These should not be silenced. They must be told. These threats, harassment and abuse were not one, two, five or 10 cases. In recent weeks, they have visited families regularly and have not given up."
According to Esmaeilion, the harassment visits are presented by authorities as visits of consolation: "The commander of the Revolutionary Guards wants to come and console you? The Martyrs Foundation wants to console you? We want consolation through talking about the issue of compensation.”
In Canada, he says, as many as 12 families of victims of the disaster have been threatened, though he said he did not have details of those threats.
"They have not presented a proper report," says Javad Soleimani. “We have either been summoned and threatened, or families have been harassed by intelligence and security agencies, the Martyr Foundation, and the Judiciary Human Rights Headquarters. Intelligence agencies want to prevent families from holding events or talking to the media. The Human Rights Headquarters calls and asks the families if they intend to file a complaint; why not file a complaint? they say. They want to hold a formal trial and say, for example, that they have dealt with the complaints of the families of the victims of this crime. The Martyr Foundation is also calling people and wants to declare the families martyrs."
Javad Soleimani’s family, and the family of his wife Elnaz, who died, have also been harassed by government officials. "When I went to Iran for the funeral, I protested to the Friday prayers leader of Zanjan, asking why they wouldn’t allow us to hold our ceremony independently. The next day, I was contacted by the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Agency and told to come and talk to them. Then they called Elnaz's father and asked about me.”
Soon after this, Soleimani left Iran and returned to Canada, where he was also contacted. ”Hassan Rezaeifar, the former head of the Plane Crash Investigation Committee, called me in Canada and said, 'Come to Iran so I can report to you on the plane case.' I said no, I will not come to Iran. He said, 'I guarantee nothing will happen to you.' I said thank you. He said, 'Then let me report to you in France.' I said thank you, Canada is okay. After a bit of talking, he told me that in some of my posts social media, I had criticized the system and that I should take these down. A few days passed; I did not remove the posts. The Guards intelligence agents called my father-in-law again and asked him about me. How can one trust a plane case investigator who works with Guards intelligence agents? Can he be neutral? The answer is no."
From the first days of this tragedy, Hamed Esmaeilion has posted on social media about the depth of his grief. Today, he says not only has his grief not diminished, it has actually deepened day by day. He is full of mourning, loss, and anger. "I can't really measure and say which feeling I have the most," he says. "These feelings are different every day. One day you get up and you are in despair. You think nothing will happen. Then the loss comes to you. A few hours later you may experience depression and then a few hours later you say to yourself: no, something needs to be done. You write letters or talk to your friends."
And so The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims works on a litigation level to bring justice to the families and honor those killed, but it also gives the families motivation and solidarity. "I now see myself as part of a team that needs to move forward," Esmaeilion says. "There is a common sense of anger and loss, regardless of the different political and religious beliefs of individuals, and it pushes the issue of litigation forward."
Javad Soleimani says he can’t move on. "We always miss them," he says. "It is not that we miss our loved ones for a moment and think about them; the fact is that we are all stuck on the 8th of January. I have felt miserable since that day. Imagine: they killed our loved ones and when we asked why, they say: do not talk, take your [compensation] money! We are dealing with such animals, can we not be angry?"
The issue of compensation has been raised by the Islamic Republic. Vice President for Legal Affairs Laya Joneidi announced on Wednesday, December 30, 2020, that compensation for the families had been approved by the Council of Ministers and would go ahead. As part of this initiative, Iran’s Ministry of Roads and Urban Development is obliged to make arrangements for the payment of $150,000 or its equivalent in euros to the families to each of the victims.
Soleimani says his whole life is focused on getting justice and avenge the perpetrators of the shooting. "Honestly, even some of my friends and relatives advise me and say I am destroying myself; put aside the idea of litigation, they say. When I hear these words from my dearest ones, I block them out. I am alive now only to sue those responsible."
But Hamid Esmaeilion says he knows the compensation will not solve everything. "It is insulting that I do not know what happened to my wife and child, and then I have to say, ‘okay, let's receive the damages. What are you talking about and what price do you want to put on it? What happened? Who did it and why?"
In early January, the Association of Families called on people to help bring the case to the international courts. In less than 48 hours, more than $100,000 in donations were raised for the association.
"This was really surprising," says Hamed Esmaeilion. "It helped us know our position. As much as the families are hurt, so is the society. People have suffered with us and they want to win a lawsuit once and for all. They want to see them in court. I just hope we are good representatives, not only for each of the passengers, but also for the people, and that we can come up with a good ending for them."
Javad Soleimani was also surprised by the support given to the families. "People sympathized with us. We also sympathize with all those whose loved ones were oppressed by the government. I personally understand the families of those killed and buried in Khavaran [where many people killed in prison between 1981 and 1988 are buried in mass or unmarked graves] are more than ever. We share the same pain."