Iran: No Justice for Victims of Downed Plane

January 7, 2021 10:00PM EST

One Year On, No Transparent Investigation; Families Harassed, Intimidated

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have failed to conduct a transparent and credible investigation into the shooting down of Ukraine International Airline flight 752 on January 8, 2020, which killed all 176 passengers and crew onboard, Human Rights Watch said today.

Iranian authorities should commit to a genuinely transparent investigation and cooperate with international bodies to uncover the truth and provide the victims’ families with justice and appropriate redress. Families told Human Rights Watch that they continue to demand a fully transparent investigation and that all those responsible should be held to account.

“The families of the 176 victims of the downed jetliner are entitled to know who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iranian government should promptly pay adequate compensation to the families and carry out a transparent and impartial investigation with appropriate prosecutions regardless of position or rank.”

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 Guards Corps. The killing was followed on January 8 by Iranian missile attacks against a US base in Iraq and the shooting down of the jetliner. After several initial denials, the Armed Forces Central Command admitted on January 11 that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had “mistakenly” shot down the passenger jet. Iranian authorities said that “human error” led to launching two surface-to-air missiles at the plane and announced that compensation would be provided to the victims’ families.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than a dozen of the victims’ family members, who said that the authorities had not returned any valuables from their loved ones. The family members said the authorities had intimidated and harassed families to stop them from seeking justice outside of the authorities’ own judicial investigations.

Several families said that the authorities had pressured them to bury their loved ones in sections of cemeteries dedicated to “martyrs” and to engrave the word “martyr” on their tombstones, against the families’ will. Some families said that the authorities intruded on memorial and burial services, taking photos and videos without obtaining the families’ consent.

On January 7, 2021, Gholam Abbas Torki, the military prosecutor of Tehran, told reporters that seven expert groups had concluded their investigations and that it was clear that “human error” had resulted in the downing of the plane.

In June 2020, Gholamhossein Esmaili, the judiciary spokesperson, said that six people had been arrested in connection with the investigation into the crash. On January 5, 2021 he said that their trial will begin by January 21. Torki said that only one person remains in detention while the others have been released on bail.

On January 6, 2021, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps issued a statement that “This tragic event that followed the inhumane adventures and terrorist acts of the United States in the region; once again proved the height of malice and malice of global [imperial] arrogance against the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation.”

On the same day, President Hasan Rouhani said that his administration had insisted on prosecuting those responsible for the incident. On December 30, 2020, the legal deputy in President Rouhani's office announced that the Iranian cabinet had allocated US$150,000 as compensation for each victim.

Over the past year, the authorities have prosecuted at least 20 people who participated in peaceful protests after the armed forces admitted shooting down the plane. Two prominent activists among them, Bahareh Hedayat and Mehdi Mahmoudian, were sentenced to four years and eight months and five years in prison respectively for participating in the protests and posting about it on Twitter.

On September 25, 2020, Radio Farda, a US-funded news outlet, reported that Mostafa Hashemizadeh, a civil engineering student at the University of Tehran who had been sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion to disrupt national security,” had been summoned to serve his sentence.

On several occasions, officials from Canada, whose nationals constituted the majority of the victims, and other countries whose nationals were on board, have called on Iran to cooperate with multilateral investigative initiatives. After months of delay caused in part by the global Covid-19 pandemic, Iran on July 18, 2020, said that it had sent the plane’s black box to France to be read.

In the week prior to the anniversary of the incident, Iranian authorities have organized several events commemorating the victims of the crash, including a video projection on the Azadi landmark tower in Tehran.

“Public commemorations do not make up for the intimidation of victims’ families and wrongful prosecutions of peaceful protesters,” Page said. “The authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop charges against those peacefully protesting, stop intimidating families, and direct their efforts to holding wrongdoers to account.”