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Iran: Ukraine Airline Victims’ Families Harassed, Abused

A Torture Case, No Transparency in Investigation of 2020 Downed Airliner

People hold placards with images of the victims of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, which Iran's Revolutionary Guards shot down near Tehran, marking its first anniversary, in Toronto, Canada, January 8, 2021. © 2021 REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have engaged in a campaign of harassment and abuse against families of people killed in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020, Human Right Watch said today. On April 6, 2021, Iranian authorities announced that they had indicted 10 people for their role in the incident but have not provided any public information about their identities, ranks, or the charges against them. Governments participating in the Flight 752 investigation should support family members of victims in pursuing a path for justice and accountability.

From October 2020 to January 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke to 31 family members of victims and people with direct knowledge of the authorities’ treatment of the families. They said that Iran’s security agencies had arbitrarily detained, summoned, abusively interrogated, tortured, and otherwise mistreated victims’ family members. The agencies also failed to return victims’ possessions to their relatives and interfered with burial and memorial gatherings in an apparent attempt to curtail efforts for accountability.

“Iran’s Revolutionary Guard killed 176 people without a shred of accountability, and now Iran’s brutal security agencies are abusing victims’ family members to squash any hope for justice,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than attempting to regain people’s trust through a transparent investigation and redress for the families, the authorities are again silencing accountability efforts.”

On January 3, 2020, a US drone strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The killing was followed on January 8 by Iranian missile attacks against a US base in Iraq and Iran’s shooting down of a civilian jetliner close to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini international airport. After several initial denials, the Armed Forces Central Command admitted on January 11 that the Revolutionary Guards had “mistakenly” shot down the passenger jet, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board.

Iranian authorities said that “human error” by a missile operator led to launching two surface-to-air missiles at the plane. But the authorities have not disclosed critical evidence supporting the claim and have not provided any details of their judicial investigation. The cabinet announced that it had allocated US$150,000 to compensate the family of each passenger.

On March 17, Iran’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board published its final report on the incident in which it said, based on information provided by the military, that Iranian missiles were launched at the plane due to a 105-degree miscalibration of the launcher’s radar. The report did not clarify inconsistencies in the Iranian government’s findings raised by various independent observers, including the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions in a detailed letter to the Iranian government in December.

The foreign affairs and transport ministers of Canada, the intended destination of most of the passengers, said in a statement that, “The report makes no attempt to answer critical questions about what truly happened. It appears incomplete and has no hard facts or evidence.” On May 20 a Canadian court ruled in a civil lawsuit that “on the balance of probabilities … the missile attacks on Flight 752 were intentional and directly caused the deaths of all onboard.”

After Iranian authorities admitted they shot down the plane, protests broke out in several Iranian cities. The security forces responded with rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas, Amnesty International reported. Over the past year, courts have sentenced at least 20 people in connection with their participation in protests. At least three more participants are currently on trial.

The authorities have also harassed and intimidated victims’ family members. Family members said that in several instances, the authorities interfered with burial and memorial services, pressuring families to accept the government’s “martyrdom” status for their loved ones, and published photos and videos without the permission of the families at services.

At least 16 people said that security agencies threatened them not to participate in interviews with foreign media or had followed or summoned their relatives or friends who attended memorials and filmed those attending these events. In some cases, security forces interrogated or detained family members for several hours.

In at least one case, the authorities tortured a person in custody. In another case, plainclothes officers asked to meet a family member who had spoken against authorities’ conduct at a public place and threatened that person with prosecution. In at least three cases, the authorities threatened family members with “consequences” unless they removed social media posts critical of the government’s lack of accountability.

One family member said that half an hour before a memorial event, intelligence authorities called and told them to cancel it. “We decided not to cancel the gathering,” the family member said. “But you can imagine how stressed every single moment of it was because we were worried about someone saying something political [and getting them in trouble with authorities].”

Several of those interviewed said that the authorities returned important documents from the victims, but did not return any valuables, such as jewelry and electronic devices. Videos and photos published two days after the crash show bulldozers demolishing the site before authorities had accepted responsibility for downing the plane, raising concerns that they failed to secure evidence that was then destroyed or left unusable for investigations or legal proceedings.

Under international human rights law, Iranian authorities are obligated to investigate and prosecute cases of unlawful deprivation of life, impose appropriate punishment, and provide victims and their families full redress. Iranian courts, and particularly revolutionary courts, regularly fall far short of providing fair trials and use confessions likely obtained under torture as evidence in court.

Over the past year, Iranian courts have sentenced to prison at least 20 people who participated in the protests that broke out after authorities’ admission of downing of the plane. Iranian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release those who have been sentenced for their peaceful dissent.

“Iranian authorities have continued to harass and pressure people speaking out publicly about the government’s mishandling of the investigation and demands for accountability,” Page said. “All governments involved in the investigation of downed Flight 752 should ensure that the rights of victims’ families are protected to pursue genuine accountability, including holding those responsible criminally liable and providing families with adequate compensation.”


Abuses Against Victims’ Family Members

Iranian authorities have carried out a range of abuses against family members of victims of Ukraine Flight 752. Human Rights Watch is withholding the identity and details of most interviewees to protect against possible reprisals. Iranian authorities routinely punish peaceful dissent and are engaged in a sustained crackdown on civil society groups.

Interviews with family members and others and a review of the information available show that government harassment and intimidation of families have been ongoing throughout the past 16 months as families seek to uncover the truth and obtain justice and accountability.

Sixteen people told Human Rights Watch that the authorities warned them against participating in interviews with foreign media or had followed, summoned for questioning, or interrogated their relatives and friends who attended memorial gatherings and filmed the service.

Security agencies also summoned, interrogated, or threatened to prosecute family members who criticized the government’s handling of the incident. In at least one case, authorities tortured and otherwise mistreated a family member taken into custody. In at least three cases, authorities threatened the families with “consequences” if they did not remove or kept up their social media posts critical of the government.

Javad Soleimani, an Iranian-Canadian man who lost his wife, Elnaz Nabiyi, in the downing of the plane, said that the Intelligence Ministry branch in the city of Zanjan, in northwest Iran, summoned him after he criticized the city’s Friday prayer during a memorial service for his wife. A revolutionary court summoned a family member to face charges over public criticisms about the Revolutionary Guard’s role and the authorities’ subsequent conduct.

A family member in another case said that a car followed a relative who was participating in a vigil for Flight 752 victims. Several others said that the authorities told relatives to delete photos they had taken of vigils or ceremonies or were ordered to disperse when they gathered for vigils. The authorities called a family after one member had shared a critical post on Instagram and told them to take it down.

Interference with Burial Rites, Memorial Gatherings

Twenty-one people said that the authorities attempted to interfere with memorial and burial services, ranging from those the interviewees identified as plainclothes officers monitoring the services and taking photos and videos, to military officers taking an active role in burial rituals, including carrying victims’ caskets, without the families’ consent.

A family member said that at a private burial when the casket arrived, more than 10 members of the local revolutionary guards appeared in uniform and carried the body and performed the burial without the family’s consent. Two family members said that local authorities held onto the bodies of their loved ones, organized state-controlled public ceremonies, and buried the bodies in burial places the authorities chose.

Other families and those who were familiar with the cases said that local authorities offered in all cases to bury Flight 752 victims in designated “martyrs” sections of cemeteries. This designation is given to those “who sacrifice their lives in defending grand goals of Islam and Islamic revolution and its achievements” and “defending the integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran against threats.”

When families refused, in at least six cases the authorities tried to pressure them to accept the place of burial, particularly in places outside Tehran. In other instances when families opposed calling their loved ones martyrs, they later saw that their graves were designated as such anyway. They said they believed that the authorities’ attaching “martyrdom” status to Flight 752 victims was a way for the state to assert control over the process of memorializing victims and to distract people from calls for accountability.

A family member said that members of the local Basij group, a Revolutionary Guard-controlled paramilitary force, showed up at the family’s house to congratulate them for the martyrdom of their relative. This brought the family considerable pain because they did not share the sense that their loved one had died for a cause.

Several families said that authorities, mostly dressed in civilian clothes while some officers wore military uniforms, attended public and private memorial ceremonies. “With intelligence officials attending every single ceremony, we weren’t able to express our grief,” a mother said. “Many words still weigh heavily on our chest, affecting our mental health.”

Families’ accounts show that harassment and interference with memorials and vigils have continued over the past year and worsened around the anniversary of the plane being shot down. Five families said that the authorities refused to allow them to hold their own independent public memorial services on the anniversary.

Mishandling of Bodies and Valuables

Several people interviewed said that the authorities did not return victims’ belongings, particularly valuables. Even though families had received some documents belonging to their loved ones that they said were in the same bags as valuables such as cash and jewelry, the authorities had not returned any of those items to them.

Two people said that local residents told them that the site of the crash was vandalized. Moreover, photos published on January 10, 2020, show that the authorities cleared the crash site with bulldozers even before officials admitted responsibility for shooting down the plane. These actions indicate that the authorities failed to secure evidence and sought to destroy or remove evidence needed for investigations or prosecutions.

Several families emphasized that their loved ones’ electronic devices were either not returned to them or that the information on the devices was not recoverable. Those devices had sentimental value for families, since they stored many photos and videos from the victims, including some of the last shots they took, several family members said.

Families also said that authorities did not allow them to see the bodies of their loved ones. Five family members were particularly disturbed that though they had made repeated requests, the authorities who handled the bodies refused to allow them to see the body of their loved one in a casket. “To this date, I do not know if I actually buried my own son,” a mother of one victim said. Another family member said that when they received the casket, they asked for more documentation that would prove it contained their loved one’s body. But the authorities responsible for returning the bodies refused to provide such documentation or said that they did not have any.

Lack of Transparency in Domestic Investigation

The Iranian authorities’ criminal investigation into the shooting down of the plane remains shrouded in secrecy, and families have not been able to get any details. Most of the family members interviewed said that members of the High Council for Human Rights, a government body under judiciary supervision, called them to encourage them to file a complaint with the judiciary and offered assistance to support the families throughout the procedure.

However, four families who filed a complaint still did not get any details about the investigation. A family member said that after the family filed a complaint, people affiliated with the High Council expressed dissatisfaction with their choice of a lawyer, who is known for representing high-profile opposition cases, and offered to provide a “trusted” lawyer of their own.

Several other sources said that the families who filed a complaint were not able to get any information about the investigation. On February 13, Hamed Esmaeilion, an Iranian-Canadian man who lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and his 9-year-old daughter, Rira, posted a note and video on Facebook of what appears to be a meeting between families and the military prosecutor. Esmaeilion said that families asked the authorities whether investigators had questioned Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Force, against whom families had filed a complaint in relation to the downing of the airplane. On May 5 the Association of Families of PS752’s Instagram channel shared a copy of the legal notice that families received about the investigation, which says that 10 people were indicted for the downing and will face prosecution. The notice also stated that the process found that the prosecutor does not have jurisdiction to investigate the complaint against the state medical examiner and has dropped charges against all others who were facing a complaint. On May 16, several family members filed a new complaint against Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of IRGC, Ali Shamkhani, the sectary of the Supreme National Security Council, and Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the chief of Iran’s Central Command of the Armed Forces, at the Branch 2 of Tehran First Branch of Criminal Military Court.

everal other victims’ family members expressed significant mistrust in the transparency and judicial process in Iran generally and cited that as the main reason that they were not going to file a complaint.

Timeline of Iranian Government Investigation into Flight 752

At approximately 6:18 a.m., on January 8, 2020, Ukrainian Airline Flight 752 with 176 passengers and crew on board crashed into a playground approximately 6minutes after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. The passengers included 138 people on their way to Canada via Ukraine.

Between January 8 and the morning of January 11, a number of Iranian authorities rejected the possibility that the plane had been shot by a missile. On January 9 Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, told reporters that it was “technically impossible” that the plane’s explosion could have been the result of a missile attack.

On January 9, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference that the country had intelligence showing the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

On the morning of January 11, Iran’s Central Command of the Armed Forces issued a statement admitting that the plane had been shot down by a missile due to “human error.” President Hassan Rouhani then issued a statement promising compensation and redress to the victims and prosecution of those responsible for the “unforgivable mistake.”

Following the Iranian authorities’ admission, the US government-funded Radio Farda news outlet reported that there were vigils and protests in several cities including Tehran, Amol, Shiraz, and Mashhad. Security forces responded to the protests by firing teargas and arresting and injuring protesters. On January 14, Gholamhossein Esmaeli, the judiciary spokesperson, told reporters that the authorities had arrested about 30 people during the protests. Over the past year, the courts have sentenced at least 20 protesters to prison.

On January 14, 2020, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans issued a statement saying that the organization considered the Iranian victims “martyrs” and they are ready to perform their “duties,” such as facilitating their burial in their martyr sections. Around the first anniversary of Flight 752, Saeed Ohadi, the head of Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans, told reporters that with families’ “consent,” 127 victims had been designated as martyrs.

On June 9, Esmaili told reporters that 6 people had been arrested in connection with the investigation, without providing any information about their identity or rank, and that 70 families had filed complaints. Neither official provided any information about the identity or rank of those who had been arrested.

On January 6, 2021, President Rouhani reiterated during a cabinet meeting that his administration was insisting on prosecuting all those responsible for the incident. The cabinet announced that it had allocated $150,000 compensation for each of the passengers on the airliner.

Iranian authorities have not published any details about the criminal investigation or those who have been arrested or questioned. On January 7, Gholam Abbas Turki, the Tehran military prosecutor, told reporters that the investigation reached the conclusion that shooting down the plane was the missile operator’s human error, and that one person who was not identified by name or rank remained in custody.

On February 20, Hojatoleslam Bahrami, the head of the armed forces judicial body, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that the investigation had been completed and judicial authorities were preparing the indictment.

On February 23, Agnes Callamard, then-UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, published a detailed letter she had sent to Iranian officials on December 24, 2020, asking several questions about inconsistencies in the government’s public reporting and violations committed throughout the process.

Callamard raised concerns regarding the lack of clarity about the reasons for the miscalibration of Iran’s radars and the Revolutionary Guard’s failure to follow “the most basic standard procedures, such as monitoring altitude, climb or descent rate and airspeed to evaluate unknown radar tracks, evaluating the target's size, or checking the target visually.” Callamard found that “Iran failed to explain how information about cleared civilian flights was communicated to Revolutionary Guard units, a critical step to ensure the safety of civilian aircraft and one that clearly failed.”

On March 17, Iran’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board published its final report on the incident. It reported information provided by military authorities that a missile operator identified the civilian airplane as a military threat because of a miscalculation and the operator launched missiles before hearing back from commanders.

The Canadian ministers of foreign affairs and of transport said in a statement on the same day that “The report makes no attempt to answer critical questions about what truly happened. It appears incomplete and has no hard facts or evidence.” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, also called the Iranian investigation "biased," the evidence presented "selective," and the conclusions "deceptive."

Iranian authorities have claimed that at the time of the incident, they had implemented a heightened security protocol requiring civil aviation to seek permission from military authorities prior to departure, a process that was reportedly followed for an earlier trip of Flight 752. However, they have not provided more details nor responded to inquiries by UN human rights experts as to why they did not close the airspace despite significant security risks.

On April 6, Turki, the Tehran military prosecutor, said that there have been indictments for 10 officials who were involved in the airplane downing, but he did not disclose any more information about the identity or rank of those indicted.

On April 15, the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper reported that “Oleksiy Danilov, who as secretary of the National Defense and Security Council, oversaw the early stages of Ukraine’s own investigation into the disaster, said Iran’s refusal to allow international investigators unfettered access to the evidence has convinced him that Iran shot the plane down on purpose.”

On May 20, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that “on a balance of probabilities … the missile attacks on Flight 752 were intentional,” and that “the plaintiffs have established that the shooting down of Flight 752 by the defendants was an act of terrorism and constitutes ‘terrorist activity.’” The court issued a default judgment on the liability of the Islamic Republic of Iran and several high-level officials.

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