The families of those killed when Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 was shot out of the sky in 2020 gathered in Toronto on Sunday to commemorate the tragedy's third anniversary and renew calls for justice.
At the Meridian Arts Centre, relatives gathered on stage in front of a crowd full of families and supporters. They took turns reading aloud the names and ages of the victims, their voices faltering at times.
"We gather today to remember and honour our loved ones who perished so tragically," said Azadeh Heidari, the mother of 21-year-old passenger Amir Marodi.
Marodi was one of the 176 people killed on Jan. 8, 2020, when the plane was shot down over Tehran by surface-to-air missiles fired by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"I thank you for standing with us over the past three years. We cherish your love and compassion as we continue our journey for justice."
Victims' families say three years after the tragedy they have yet to see the Iranian government answer for the crime. Countries representing victims were stonewalled by Iran following an invitation to negotiate compensation for the victims' loved ones, while the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims has gone as far as to publish its own report on the incident in an effort to uncover what happened before and after the plane was downed.
The aircraft, bound for Canada, carried 55 Canadians and 30 permanent residents. Many of them were families travelling together, children and university students.
Hamed Esmaeilion, president of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, lost two people that day: his nine-year-old daughter, Reera, and wife, Parisa Eghbalian.
"Three years have passed that seemed to us like a lifetime," said Esmaeilion.
At the ceremony, he recounted the association's demands in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several senior federal cabinet ministers.
Among the demands is having the Canadian government list the entirety of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, and identifying and removing from Canada the "oligarchs and operatives" of the Islamic Republic.
"The world must understand that they have no place in the international community and most importantly they do not represent the great people of Iran," said Esmaeilion.
Esmaeilion said the association stands with the people of Iran protesting after Mahsa Amini's death. Amini died in the custody of the Islamic Republic's morality police after she was detained for violating strict codes requiring women to dress modestly in public.
"When Mahsa Amini was murdered, Iran and its people rose to voice the grief and rage that's been burning in them for 44 years," said Esmaeilion.
"We, the members of Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, are part of this revolution."
Canada to 'look for more to do' to hold 'brutal, murderous regime' to account
Trudeau took to the stage, recounting meetings with several victims' families leading up to the third anniversary, saying "finding justice" is a crucial part of mourning.
"This tragedy happened because of the Iranian regime's heinous disregard for human life," said Trudeau.
"Your grief has been compounded by their refusal to be held accountable."
The Iranian government denied shooting down the aircraft for three days following the crash, but after international pressure, it admitted that a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "mistakenly" shot down the jet.
The Iranian military was on high alert at the time because of the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike five days earlier at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, as well as a subsequent retaliatory attack by Iran on Iraqi bases where U.S. forces were stationed.
Iran's final report into the tragedy blamed human error, saying the plane was shot down after being "misidentified" by an air defence unit as a "hostile target." It blamed low-level military personnel for the error. However, Canada and other affected countries rejected the claim.
On Dec. 28, Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ukraine started the process to send the case to the International Court of Justice and attempt to force Iran to compensate victims' families.
Trudeau highlighted this, adding Canada has "permanently and forever" banned leaders from Iran from taking safe haven in the country.
"We will continue to stand and look for even more to do to ensure that this brutal, murderous regime is held fully to account."
He made specific mention of Amini's death. Her death sparked outrage from Iranian diaspora communities across the globe, including in Canada.
"The Islamic Republic is not representative and is not indicative of the extraordinary, wonderful, warm, beautiful people of Iran who deserve so much better," said Trudeau.
People need the truth, victim's husband says
Javad Soleimani said he had been in Canada with his wife, Elnaz Nabiyi, for less than two years when she was killed while on the aircraft.
He said Canada felt like a good place for the couple to create a better life for themselves — "a place where people of different backgrounds can live together."
Soleimani said it's difficult to talk about his wife, whom he described as smart and caring.
"I've tried to do my best to keep her memory alive and keep fighting for justice," he said. "We are doing this not just for ourselves but the safety of civilian airlines."
Many of the victims' families have spent the past three years channelling their grief into action. They say they've clocked about 28,000 hours of volunteer work searching for answers, organizing protests and pressing for justice.
To get closure, Soleimani said the families need the truth.
"We need to know all the truth: what exactly happened and why it happened," he said.
Sunday's anniversary, hosted by the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, featured a reception and art gallery viewing before the main ceremony. It was followed by a public candlelight vigil at Mel Lastman Square, near the arts centre in Toronto's north end.
The association, families and other supporters are also took part in rallies across Canada urging Ottawa to take a tougher stance against Iran.
Advocates argue the move should have come sooner and that the RCMP should have launched a criminal investigation while Ottawa was negotiating with Tehran.