Hamed Esmaeilion, a dentist from the northern suburbs of Toronto, admires the 2006 film The Lives of Others, in which an East German secret policeman turns against the regime’s secrecy and tries to help its victims. In the epilogue, the regime implodes, Germany reunifies, and the characters are allowed to see state records that reveal the truth surrounding a terrible event.
“We are all waiting for the last ten minutes of that movie,” said Esmaeilion, who lost his wife Parisa and daughter Reera when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps shot down Ukrainian Airlines flight PS752 as it took off for Kyiv from Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020.
But Esmaeilion, who is also the spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, which represents most of the victims’ loved ones, is doubtful about Canada’s resolve in seeking the truth.
While most of the 176 victims had ties to Canada—55 were citizens, 30 were permanent residents and many were studying here—Esmaeilion says Canada has taken “a very conservative approach to the whole process.”
The families’ struggle for truth now appears to have reached a stalemate. Last December, Iranian authorities refused point-blank to negotiate with the International Coordination and Response Group formed by countries that lost citizens in the shooting, which include Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom (Afghanistan was also represented until the Taliban takeover last August). The group has declared further efforts to negotiate with Iran “futile.”
Without transparency from the Iranian government, the victims’ families remain haunted by unanswered questions, which they outlined in a November 2021 report titled “The Lonely Fight For Justice.”
Among the questions they raised: Why did Iran leave its airspace open amid hostilities with the U.S. on the night of the shooting? How could Iran’s air defense system mistake a civilian plane for an incoming missile? Why did Iran deny its involvement in shooting down the plane for three days afterwards? Why did authorities bulldoze the crash site? Why have Iranian authorities harassed the victims’ families and interfered with funerals, as documented by Human Rights Watch last year?
The report concludes that Iran left its airspace open so that civilian aircraft could serve as “human shields” against possible U.S. retaliation for an Iranian missile strike on a U.S. base in Iraq. Iran struck the base in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Qods Force, General Qassem Soleimani. The report also speculates that the shooting of the plane could have been intentional, part of an “asymmetric warfare” strategy designed to forestall further military escalation with the U.S.
While the latter claim might seem shocking or conspiratorial, it has received varying degrees of support from outside observers. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations’ former special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, wrote to Iran in December 2020 that, while she had not found concrete proof that the shooting was premeditated, the question needs to be further investigated. In a controversial civil court ruling last May, an Ontario Superior Court judge labelled the shooting an intentional terrorist act. In December, he awarded six of the victims’ families $107 million, which they can try to collect from Iran’s assets.
The six families’ lawyer, Mark Arnold, told the CBC this could include claims on Iranian oil tankers in foreign ports or as-yet-unnamed Iranian assets in Canada. He has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help the families collect on those assets.
Javad Soleimani, the chair of the Association of Families’s fact-finding committee, and who lost his wife Elnaz in the attack, said he and the majority of PS752 families believe Iran targeted the plane intentionally.
The Islamic Republic, he said, is “not a normal regime.” While he welcomed the Ontario court’s ruling, he said he and most of the families put truth above compensation.
“We can’t talk about compensation without knowing what happened,” he said.
Whether one believes the shooting was intentional or not, Soleimani said, there is a need for an impartial investigation, and since negotiations with Iran have failed, Canada should list the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation and apply Magnitsky-style sanctions to Iranian officials.
Two years of living without answers, he said, have hindered his ability to grieve. His wife’s clothes and shoes are still at his home, but, he said, “I don’t dare to even touch them.”
Navaz Ebrahim, also a member of the families’ association, lost her older sister Niloufar and brother-in-law Saeed, who were newlyweds living in the UK. Her parents, she said, are not doing well.
“They have aged several years in just two years,” she said, and Iran is now trying to close the case by offering compensation on its own terms, in lieu of disclosing all the details of the incident. The official government line also describes the victims as “shahids”—Islamic martyrs akin to those who died fighting in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
“A shahid is someone who goes to war, but our loved ones were not going to war,” she said.
Esmaeilion, Soleimani and Ebrahim now pin their hopes on Canada’s involvement with international institutions: Canada, they say, should take the case to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.
Other options, Esmaeilion says, are also under consideration, such as offering an award to encourage a whistleblower within the Iranian regime to come forward with what could be “a smoking gun.”
“We are fighters to the end of this story,” Esmaeilion says. “But I am a different person now. I have to go in front of cameras and talk about our strategy, our demands, how we feel about this or that news, instead of taking my daughter to school every day.”