While an Ontario court recently awarded $107 million to the families of the victims of Flight PS752 — shot down by Iran's Revolutionary Guard two years ago — both the lawyer representing the families and an expert on international law say getting the money out of Iran will be very difficult.
Mark Arnold, the lawyer representing six plaintiffs from five families, told a news conference today that he plans to go after Iranian assets domestically and abroad.
But while it's possible to seize Iran's assets in Canada through the courts, the same rules don't apply internationally.
"We know where they are in Canada and we know where they are internationally," said Arnold.
An unknown person or persons interrupted the original news conference, held over Zoom, by bombarding the meeting with explicit videos and music. The sabotage forced the organizers to end the meeting and hold a second news conference later in the day.
Arnold said he wouldn't offer specifics about how he and his team plan on collecting the assets.
A 2012 amendment to Canada's State Immunity Act allows for seizure of non-diplomatic assets in cases of state sponsorship of terrorism.
Joanna Harrington, a law professor at the University of Alberta, said she suspects most of Iran's assets in Canada already have been seized.
"Iran would be fully aware of the risk if it maintained assets in the country," she said.
A number of judgments in U.S. courts for victims of terrorism were executed in Canada.
In 2014, an Ontario judge ordered the seizure of more than $7 million worth in bank accounts and property belonging to Iran in Canada. Some of the plaintiffs spent years trying to collect the money from Iran's regime, which uses front companies to hide vast real estate and financial holdings in the West, CBC News has reported.
Harrington said international seizure of Iranian assets would be exceptionally difficult because of state immunity laws.
"Under international law, there is generally a very restrictive approach taken to enforcement proceedings," she said. "I think the difficulty here from a legal perspective is always the concern in international relations that if we allow lawsuits against Iran in Canada, then there's nothing stopping a lawsuit against Canada in Iran.
"The reason why we have state immunity laws is to respect the fact that one state should not be subordinate to the courts of another state, leaving disputes between states for international fora and not the domestic courts of one province in one country."
Iran has called the Flight PS752 civil case shameful and said it lacked credible evidence.
Diplomacy best chance for compensation
Arnold acknowledged that it won't be easy to get the money but insisted he's not giving his clients false hope.
"We will do our best to do what we can," he said. "(The families) are aware of the ups and downs and the risk."
Arnold said that he's identified Iranian government assets in Canada. He called on the government in Tehran to negotiate.
"We have found some in Canada," he said. "They know we're coming and, frankly, they should come to us."
Iran did not defend itself in court, making this a default judgment. Canadian terrorism law experts have argued the judge in this case, Justice Edward Belobaba, contorted the law to come to his conclusion that the attack was an intentional act of terrorism.
Arnold said repeatedly that the case is about obtaining justice for the victims and their families, not money.
Plaintiff Shahin Moghaddam, who lost his wife and son in the tragedy, concurred.
"The money will not bring them back to us," he said. "For me, it's a victory, it was a victory after a huge effort."
He described his feelings after first hearing about the ruling in the case.
"The feeling was so strange. It was happiness, it was sadness … I didn't know what to do even, to cry, to laugh, to be happy," he said. "It's so complicated."
Canada, along with other countries whose citizens were killed in the tragedy, is pressing Iran for reparations. It has given the Iranian government a deadline of January 5 to confirm that it's willing to negotiate.
Arnold said he's not happy with the federal government's lack of communication with him.
"I'm begging the Canadian government to collaborate with us," he said.
While expressing sympathy for the victims, Harrington said diplomacy is the families' best bet at receiving compensation.
"A lawsuit in Ontario is not going to deliver the compensation that they hope for, and I worry that these kinds of lawsuits lead to unmet expectations," she said.
"This is a matter that is best addressed — if it can be addressed — through international negotiations between Canada and Iran, involving other countries who've also lost nationals in the downing of the airplane."