A Year After Iran Downed Ukrainian Airliner, Families Still Seeking Justice

A year after the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the families of the victims are still looking for answers to the tragedy and seeking justice.

Among them is Toronto-based Nima Neyestani, who lost his 32-year-old fiancé, Shadi Jamshidi, in the crash.

Jamshidi, a Canadian resident, was visiting her father in the Iranian capital and was on her way back to Toronto, where the couple had been living for almost three years.

"Everything is under control," Jamshidi wrote in her last text message on January 8, 2020, before the plane departed Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Tragedy Strikes

A few minutes later, Jamshidi's Kyiv-bound plane crashed and exploded into a fireball after being hit with two surface-to-air missiles.

All 176 passengers and the Ukrainian crew were killed. The majority of the victims were Iranians and Canadians, though several Afghans, Britons, Swedes, and Germans were also among the dead.

After three days of denials and amid growing international pressure, the IRGC admitted to shooting down the plane "unintentionally" after misidentifying it as a threat amid heightened tensions with the United States just days after it had assassinated IRGC Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani. The delayed claim of responsibility for the downing by Tehran sparked angry protests in Iran and increased distrust in the clerical establishment.

Hours before the tragedy, Iran had launched missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq in revenge for Soleimani's killing and Tehran's air defenses were on high-alert in case of U.S. retaliation, which never came.

Compensation Rejected

Iranian officials later said several people had been detained and charged over the "disastrous mistake" without identifying them. There has been no report of senior officials being dismissed or resigning over the incident.

Speaking earlier this week, Iranian President Hassan Rohani renewed his promise to punish those responsible for downing the plane.

Iran announced last month that it had allocated $150,000 for the families of each of the victim, an offer rejected by the Ukrainian government and some of the families of the victims, who see it as an attempt to close the case and escape accountability.

Neyestani and others are still seeking answers, including why Iran did not close its airspace amid the dangerous tensions with the United States.

They have also expressed skepticism about Iran's version of the tragic events.

Seeking Justice

"We want to know the truth," Neyestani said in calling for an independent investigation. "There should be an investigation by an independent body, most likely by another country because I don't believe there's an independent body in Iran," he added.

In December, an independent report by the Canadian government accused Iran of failing to conduct a proper investigation and said that many questions remain unanswered. "The party responsible for the situation is investigating itself, largely in secret. That does not inspire confidence or trust," said a report by Canada's special counsel on the tragedy.

Neyestani has joined other families of the victims in an association that aims to keep the memories of the passengers alive and seek justice for those responsible for downing the plane.

"There is so much anger, hatred, and sadness. It's a very strange cocktail inside us," Neyestani said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. "I believe we have a commitment towards our loved ones who were on that flight."

"Shadi loved her life and they took it away," he added.

His father and uncle, Touka Neyestani and Mana Neyestani, respectively, are prominent cartoonists who memorialized the loss and the family's grief in a cartoon in which Jamshidi's plane is seen going down while she is portrayed as the character Rose in the Little Prince novel by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupery.

Neyestani says he is still not able to find the right words to speak about the tragedy. "My sadness is not just about losing Shadi. I'm sad for all 176 killed. I've cried watching the photos and videos of each victim," he told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

No Relief From Grief

Shahin Moghadam, who lost his 39-year-old wife, Shakiba Feghahati, and his 10-year-old son Rosstin in the tragedy, is both grieving for his family and furious with Iranian officials.

His wife and son had traveled to Iran, their homeland, on their first trip since moving to Canada seven years ago. It turned out to be their final visit.

Moghadam spoke to them by phone after they went through the security check. He told them he would be waiting at Toronto's Pearson Airport. But several days later he was flying to Iran to pick up their remains.

Moghadam says nothing can diminish his grief. He hasn't yet found the courage to enter his son's bedroom even one year after his death.

Moghadam -- who believes justice could bring the families some comfort -- said senior Iranian officials should be held accountable. "I want to see [those responsible] in court and be sentenced accordingly," Moghadam said in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, calling for the perpetrators to receive the "toughest sentence."

In Iran, the families of the victims have also struggled with their losses. Many have said they faced state pressure and were prevented from having private burials.

A video posted online recently showed an unnamed woman crying at the graves of her loved ones and demanding justice for her daughter, Evin Arsalani, son-in-law Hiva Molani, and her 1-year-old granddaughter, Kurdia Molani. All three perished in the crash.

"Last year my daughter was here and we celebrated her 30th birthday. Today she turned 31. Why did you prevent her from being with me? Why did you do this?" she says through tears.

"We don't want blood money and compensation. We want justice."

Tehran's iconic Azadi Tower was adorned in light on January 6 in memory of the victims of Flight PS752. The phrase "You will not leave our thoughts" and the number 176 were displayed on the tower.

Separately, the families of some of the victims commemorated their loved ones on January 7 at Khomeini airport with candles and flowers, the Association of Victims' Families of Flight PS752 reported.

The group said security forces had failed to prevent the families from gathering at "the crime scene" in Shahriar, outside of Tehran, which was quickly bulldozed following the crash in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence.