Families of the victims of the Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 disaster have called on the Canadian government to take a more robust stance against the perpetrators in Iran.
Last week the Islamic Republic released its final technical report on the January 8, 2020 downing of PS752 by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) which killed all 176 people on board.
The 285-page document sought to exonerate the Iranian government and implicitly blamed the IRGC, and a series of technical and “human errors” that led to the firing of two missiles on a civilian plane over Tehran.
Canada’s foreign affairs and transport ministers, Marc Garneau and Omar Alghabra, roundly condemned the report last week, saying they remained “deeply concerned about the lack of convincing information and evidence.” The country is set to release its own forensic report into the disaster in the coming weeks, and has called for full accountability and reparations for victims’ families as a matter of priority.
But Hamed Esmaelion, a spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 victims, says there are a number of basic steps the Canadian government could already have taken. Some 55 Canadians and 30 permanent citizens were killed aboard PS752 but, unlike Ukraine, the country has not yet launched a criminal investigation.
“We are still waiting,” Esmaeilion told IranWire, “for a firm, bold and resolute reaction from Canada.”
How has Canada Reacted to the Report?
In a break with its usual principle of not commenting on other countries’ investigations, the Canadian Transport Safety Board issued its own detailed response to the Iranian report last Thursday.
Iran’s Air Accident Investigation Office (AAIB), it said, had still failed to explain why civilian airspace was open on January 8, 2020 at a time of heightened military tensions with the US, or the underlying factors that caused the missiles to be launched at PS752.
Furthermore, the AAIB had claimed military activities “fall outside of the scope” of an international investigation under Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation. “We do not agree,” Canada's TSB said.
IranWire contacted Transport Canada for more information on the questions minister Omid Alghabra believes are still unanswered. In a statement, the government body said: “Iran’s final report concludes that PS752 was shot down because an air-defence unit mistook the Boeing 737 as a threat.
“This reportedly occurred because of a misalignment of the missile launcher radar. Furthermore, the operator did not receive permission to shoot from senior officers, as he should have.
“The report, however, does not provide any detailed information regarding how the misalignment occurred, nor what steps were taken to ensure it was properly calibrated, nor anything about the missile operator’s training, experience or proficiency, nor about how or why the required communications with central military command were either not followed or not successful.
“It does not go into detail about why they allowed aircraft to continue operating even though there was a threat of a retaliatory strike. In other words, the report says what happened but it doesn’t sufficiently explain why it happened.”
What Steps are Being Taken?
The upcoming forensic report will detail Canada’s own findings and the next steps the government plans to take. In its statement, Transport Canada said it was committed to ensuring Iran take “full responsibility” for the disaster and make “full reparations” for the harm it caused.
The Canadian government has also launched the Safer Skies Initiative, an international drive to address “gaps” in how the civil aviation sector deals with conflict zones. It will work to develop better risk assessments and more uniform safeguards in the sector.
On Monday, March 22, the transport minister also met with Agnes Callamard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who had previously stated in an official publication that Iran committed multiple human rights violations in the downing of PS752.
Asked by IranWire whether the minister agreed with her assessment, Transport Canada referred us to a tweet by the minister which had already attracted the ire of some social media users. In the post, Mr Alghabra described the human rights violations as “alleged” only.
Families Reiterate Demands Ahead of Negotiations
For its part, the Association of Families of PS752 Victims has slammed Iran’s final report as “grossly inadequate”, and riddled with “countless inconsistencies” and “fabrications”.
The Association believes the claim of “human error” is still unsubstantiated and, for the time being, it says families are forced to conclude that the plane was shot down deliberately, in an airspace that was kept open deliberately.
Hamed Esmaeilion, the group’s official spokesman, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash on January 8, told IranWire there were a number of key, decisive steps Canada could already have taken in its response to the atrocity.
“We needed to see more,” he said. “We’ve asked for several actions which we are still waiting to see performed. We asked for an independent legal team, we asked for the IRGC to be designated a terror group, and we asked for Magnitsky sanctions to be applied to the perpetrators. We also asked for a very simple thing: a travel advisory for Iran.
“None of this has been provided yet. And it’s not just Canada: all five countries and the international community need to take part. After MH17, all five countries involved signed a memorandum of understanding to work together. But here, Ukraine is the only country with a criminal case open.”
In Canada, the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force has been designated a terror group since 2012. But the designation does not cover the rest of the IRGC. Esmaeilion told IranWire that the designation list is out of date, with some dead officers’ names listed on the website.
In addition, he said, despite the obfuscation of the IRGC chain of command by the AAIB, Canada has enough information to impose targeted Magnitsky-style sanctions – asset freezes and travel bans – against some of those involved in either the disaster itself or the cover-up in the days that followed.
“There are those who were probably involved in making the decisions,” he said, “such as the generals and the Supreme Leader, and the people involved in trying to block the path of justice, like Javad Zarif and the Civil Aviation Organization.”
Esmaeilion pointed out that within weeks of protests over electoral fraud erupting in Belarus last September, Canada had joined the UK in imposing Magnitsky sanctions on 11 officials in the Belarusian government. “Here,” he said, “Iran murdered 85 Canadian permanent residents.”
In his view, he said, the transport minister had been “very conservative” in describing the human rights violations in the downing of PS752 as “alleged”. “Minister Alghabra has been in touch with families for a long time,” he said. “If he reviews Ms Callamard’s report, it clearly says what Iran has done. It’s not been proven in court – and we understand that – but if he’s going to defend us, and I assume he will, the words should be chosen carefully.”
In the long term, if negotiations with Iran over reparations drag on for more than three months, the Association wants the case to be taken to the International Court of Justice. But, Esmaeilion noted, this would be a long and arduous process and families have waited 15 months already.
“The last few days have been difficult for families,” he told IranWire. “They’re still living in darkness. They don’t know what happened, they don’t know why it happened, and it’s hard for them to keep standing up and asking for justice. There are family members who work relentlessly, every day and every night, to help this case go forward. The waiting game is not helping anybody.
“We want to see more from the international community. We don’t see much now. The hope that these families have for justice is hope they are losing. And that’s worse than not knowing the truth.”