WASHINGTON - Relatives of those killed by Iran’s shoot-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane last January say they do not want blood money from Tehran but rather an international trial to hold its leaders accountable, a procedure contingent on overcoming lengthy hurdles under global conventions.
The Jan. 8, 2020, downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by Iranian missiles shortly after it took off from Tehran killed all 176 people on board, most of them Iranians and Iranian Canadians who were flying to Kyiv en route to Canada. Iran has described the downing as a mistake by air defense personnel but has not held anyone accountable.
In the last nine days of December, five people based in Canada and the U.S. who lost loved ones on the plane spoke to VOA Persian about what they want to see happen next in their pursuit of justice as they prepared to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy.
Several of them said they reject unilateral Iranian offers of financial compensation or “blood money.”
The Iranian Cabinet issued a Dec. 30 statement agreeing to pay $150,000 to each family of the victims of the plane crash. It was not clear when or how the money would be distributed.
Navaz Ebrahim, a resident of Dallas, Texas, whose sister and sister’s husband died in the crash, said she and other relatives of the victims view such compensation offers as insults that cheapen the lives of their loved ones.
“The Iranian authorities just want a financial settlement with the families to make them close the case,” Ebrahim said. “But we believe in pursuing litigation to bring those who committed this crime to justice.”
Victims’ families have filed two lawsuits against Iran through courts in Canada’s east-central Ontario province.
One is a class-action lawsuit that Ontario’s Superior Court approved in November that seeks justice for victims’ families and financial compensation from both Iran and Ukraine International Airlines. The lawsuit is led by Ontario resident Omid Arsalani, whose sister, brother-in-law and niece were killed on the plane.
The other litigation involves several victims’ families seeking justice and damages from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his military forces and key military figures. Ontario’s Supreme Court ruled last month that the lawsuit, led by resident Mehrzad Zarei, who lost his 17-year-old son, Arad, on the flight, can proceed on a normal court track rather than as a class-action procedure.
Zarei told VOA that he hopes to get a judgment from the court by June and that he and his fellow plaintiffs, whose identities he could not disclose, were considering donating any potential damages received from Iran to charity.
The bereaved relatives said Iran also should face legal action beyond the Canadian justice system.
“We will achieve justice when we see those responsible for the crash in international courts,” said Ontario resident Shahin Moghaddam, whose wife and 10-year-old son were on the flight.
Edmonton, Canada, resident Javad Soleimani, husband of crash victim Elnaz Nabiyi, said the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not been aggressive enough in pushing for Iran to face a trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Other victims’ relatives echoed that criticism.
Two international civil aviation conventions to which Canada and Iran are signatories require states to try to resolve disputes through negotiations before the ICJ can get involved. Ottawa and Tehran have not yet started such negotiations in connection with the plane crash.
If a negotiation fails under the 1944 Chicago Convention, states first must refer their dispute to the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization for a decision which can then be appealed to the ICJ. Similarly, if a negotiation fails under the 1971 Montreal Convention, states must go to arbitration and if they cannot organize such a process within six months, they may refer their dispute to the ICJ.
Trudeau’s special adviser for the plane tragedy, Ralph Goodale, told VOA Persian that he understands families’ frustration with the lack of progress toward holding Iran accountable for it.
“Their concerns are fully legitimate,” Goodale said. “But we are pursuing every tool that is available to us and will do so relentlessly until we get the satisfaction that the families deserve,” he added.
Goodale said Canada is seeking justice in four ways. One is through a Canadian forensic examination team trying to piece together what led to the plane’s downing, and another is by working with Ukraine on a criminal investigation in that country.
Canada also is seeking to change international rules that entitle Iran to lead the official investigation of the crash as the country where the incident happened.
“For the party that is responsible for the crash to be investigating itself is just not credible in our view. So we are pursuing changes in the process,” Goodale said.
As a fourth remedy, Ottawa is working with the four other countries that lost citizens in the crash — Afghanistan, Britain, Sweden and Ukraine — in a “coordination group” to try to launch reparation negotiations with Iran.
Goodale said the coordination group has had at least one technical meeting with Iran to examine how negotiations would be conducted. However, he said one critical element for starting negotiations is missing, namely the official Iranian investigation’s final report that would give the parties a set of facts to use in debating reparations.
Under United Nations rules, Iran provided a draft of the report in late December to Ukraine, which operated the downed jet, and to the U.S. and France, which built it. Tehran is not required to share the draft with Ottawa and has not done so.
Goodale said Ukraine, the U.S. and France have up to two months to comment on the Iranian draft and Tehran then will have another month to potentially revise it based on those comments.
“If this process drags on for months, the coordination group countries will need to consider starting negotiations with Iran before the final report is released, because we all feel the anguish of the families,” Goodale said.
In December, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh criticized Canada’s statements and actions regarding the plane crash as “meddling" in Tehran’s affairs.
“They have no proof of that,” Goodale told VOA in response to the Iranian criticism. “We’ve behaved completely in line with international rules and regulations.”
Ontario-based Alireza Ghandchi, whose wife and two children died on the downed plane, said Iran’s investigation of its role in the crash has been marked by delays and excuses.
“It’s a pattern that has been constant for the past 42 years,” Ghandchi said, referring to the length of time since Iran’s ruling Islamist clerics seized power in a 1979 revolution.
Iranian forces that shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet had been on alert for a U.S. response to a missile strike Iran launched on American troops in Iraq hours earlier. Iran had attacked the U.S. troops, wounding dozens, in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad five days previously.