On a clear January morning in 2020, Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 was struck by two Iranian missiles just three minutes after leaving an airport in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers.
Ever since, families of the victims have asked for a credible explanation but have been rebuffed by the Iranian authorities. On Wednesday, four of the countries whose citizens perished in the disaster filed suit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, requesting Iran provide a full account, to acknowledge its responsibility and pay “full compensation” for the material and moral damages.
The four parties to the suit — Britain, Canada, Sweden and Ukraine — contend that Iran has failed “to conduct an impartial, transparent and fair criminal investigation” but instead has “withheld or destroyed evidence” and “threatened and harassed the families of the victims.”
Iran had no immediate response to the lawsuit.
For the family members, who have long complained that the case was being ignored, the filing meant a symbolic first day in court; or, rather, in the highest judicial forum of the United Nations, based in The Hague, which settles disputes between nations and is not a criminal court.
The families have received no response to a complaint they filed earlier at the International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, which is currently dealing with war crimes investigations in Ukraine.
“We need to find the whole truth, first and foremost,” said Kourosh Doustshenas, who lost his fiancé in the crash and heads an association of Flight 752 victims’ families.
“This is the only way the families can find closure,” he said by telephone from Winnipeg, Canada. “We want no discussion about money, about compensation until the Tehran regime admits the truth about shooting down the plane.”
Under international law, the investigation of an air disaster is conducted by the nation where the aircraft crashed. That has left the Iranian military in a position to examine its own actions, an evident conflict of interest that has drawn wide criticism.
In April, the Tehran Military Court tried 10 low-level officers linked to the downing and handed out sentences ranging from one to three years for indiscipline. It said the missile operator was sentenced to 13 years for criminal negligence causing death.
The four countries that filed the suit said in a statement that the names and evidence in the case were withheld, and dismissed the exercise as a “sham trial.”
Reports by Canada, which had the most victims, and the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, have cited inconsistencies, contradictions and obfuscations by the Iranian authorities, saying they ignored some questions and offered incomplete answers to others.
The plane’s downing on Jan. 8, 2020, came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States after the killing of the top Iranian security commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, by a U.S. drone strike at the Baghdad airport.
Hours before the plane was shot down, Iran fired missiles at two U.S. military bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of General Suleimani. After days of denials, Iranian officials acknowledged that the downing was the result of “human error,” prompting angry protests across Iran.
At first, Iran insisted that the plane suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure. But evidence emerged that the plane had been struck by two missiles. Next, senior military officials acknowledged that the missiles had been fired at the airliner, and blamed the error on a communications breakdown and the actions of someone on the ground who was warned about an incoming American missile.
But the U.N. rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, and many families of the victims have suggested another account.
“The inconsistencies in the official explanation and the reckless nature of the mistakes have led many, including myself, to question whether the downing of Flight PS752 was intentional,” Ms. Callamard wrote in her 2001 report. Iran’s version of events, published in July 2020, she wrote, with its “multiple claims and stories create a maximum of confusion” and seemed aimed “to mislead in one or more ways.”
Some relatives of the victims say they are convinced that orders to shoot down the plane were issued to create a distracting humanitarian disaster that would fend off American actions.
They point to a two-year investigation commissioned by the association of victims’ families, which they say reveals Iran’s effort to hide its motives. The inquiry notes that Tehran took seven months to hand over the flight data recorders, or black boxes, and that even then 16 minutes were missing. A technician who examined a computer and smartphones returned to the victims’ families found that they had been pried open and their memory functions damaged, the report says.
Hamed Esmaeillon, who lost his wife and 9-year old daughter in the crash, said he is determined to keep working to get to the truth. “This is the fight of my life,” he said. “I lost everything in the crash. My wife and daughter were laid in a coffin with the word ‘martyr’ on it. The regime was trying to present their deaths as an act of loyalty.”