Canada investigates reports that Iran is harassing families trying to repatriate remains of crash victims

Members of Montreal's Iranian community attend a vigil, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2019 in downtown Montreal. It is “highly likely” that Iran shot down the civilian Ukrainian jetliner that crashed near Tehran late Tuesday, killing all 176 people on board, U.S., Canadian and British officials declared Thursday. They said the fiery missile strike could well have been a mistake amid rocket launches and high tension throughout the region. (Andrej Ivanov/The Canadian Press via AP)

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne says Canada is looking into "disturbing" allegations that Iran is harassing family members of PS752 airline crash victims who are desperately trying to bring home their loved ones' remains.

Responding to a video posted on Twitter of a woman pleading for Canada's help in bringing home the body of her son, Champagne tweeted back that the government is looking into the matter. The video was posted by an Iranian journalist/activist who said Iranian authorities are telling families of crash victims not to speak to journalists.

Champagne's office confirmed the minister is looking into allegations that families are being harassed.

Iranian leaders said Saturday that Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down the Boeing 737-800 using surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. Of those passengers, 138 were destined for Canada, but it's not known how many were permanent residents or were travelling on visitor or student visas.

Champagne confirmed Friday that 57 of the victims were Canadian citizens.

The process to identify the remains will require DNA or dental records. Canadian officials, most likely including the RCMP, will assist in the operation on the ground.

Little is known at this point about how the repatriation process will play out. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, something that's been an issue in past consular cases; a government official said it's too early to say what impact that factor could have in this case.

Repatriation a 'complicated procedure'

Ukraine's ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko said the identification and repatriation process will be "quite a complicated procedure" — because of the technical nature of DNA collection and comparison and the legal complications arising from the fact that many of the victims held dual citizenship.

He said families could have to wait some time before their loved ones' remains are returned to Canada.

"It's a very difficult thing to speculate because it might be days and weeks, but it also might be months," he told CBC's Robyn Bresnahan, host of Ottawa Morning, in an interview Monday.

"It is a legal issue because we need to make sure Iran gives all the necessary permits to do this, and obviously it is up to the families to decide what should be done to the remains."

Champagne said today the Standing Rapid Deployment Team (SRDT) — a group of staffers from Global Affairs Canada trained and ready to deploy in response to overseas emergencies — and a team from the Transportation Safety Board will be in place in Tehran by tonight. Two members of the SRDT will provide support from Ankara in Turkey, while other experts may be dispatched as needed, the minister said on Twitter.

Champagne also has scheduled an in-person meeting of the International Coordination and Response Group at Canada House in London, U.K. for Thursday. The Canada-led group, which includes participants from Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the U.K., was struck to ensure transparency and accountability in the wake of the crash.

Lawyers have told CBC that family members of those killed on Flight PS752 likely are entitled to monetary compensation through civil action, the International Court of Justice or international diplomacy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday that he expects Iran to take full responsibility for the downing of the jetliner and indicated that he would press Iran to provide compensation on behalf of those killed.