Low-level Iranian officials likely scapegoats for downing of Ukrainian plane, experts say

Iran's secretive and unaccountable judicial system may scapegoat some low-level officials, finding them guilty of playing a role in last week's downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane, experts say. But anyone higher in the hierarchy who bears responsibility is unlikely to face justice.

"I think it is plausible that lower level people will be identified as guilty for the actual decision to launch the air defence missile that shot down the airliner," said Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

"Will more senior people be identified? I doubt it." said Juneau, who is also a former Middle East analyst with the Department of National Defence.

However, some mid-level officials could be held accountable in some form, he said.

"'Normal' circumstances,' I would have said probably not. But given how unusual everything is right now and given that domestic pressure that the Iranian government is under right now, in addition to the international pressure, perhaps you could see that," Juneau said.

On Tuesday, Iran's judiciary announced that arrests had been made for the downing of UIA Flight PS752 which killed all 176 people, including 57 Canadians, aboard just after takeoff from Tehran.

Iranian Presidency Office/Associated Press
Iranian Presidency Office/Associated Press

Iran had initially dismissed allegations that a missile brought down the plane. But days later, its Revolutionary Guard admitted it had shot down the plane by mistake as it braced for a possible military confrontation with the United States.

Many Iranians were killed in the crash, which has sparked protests against the government in recent days.

On Tuesday, Iran's judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili said "extensive investigations have taken place and some individuals are arrested." But his statement on the judiciary's website did not say how many individuals had been detained or name them.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday also called for a special court to be set up to probe the downing of the plane and promised his administration would pursue the case "by all means."

Juneau said the Iranian government will claim that those responsible have been brought to justice, but that it's very clear there "will be no justice and accountability."

"The Iranian justice system is not independent, it is not transparent, it's not accountable and Iran is not a democracy."

And with the government currently under significant domestic and international pressure, accountability and justice will certainly not be a priority, Juneau said.

Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters
Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters

"The priority will be protecting itself, managing the fallout and then the damage," he said.

As for punishment, lower level officials could face long prison sentences or even death, Juneau said.

But those higher up, if found guilty, possibly would have lighter sentences "to try to maximize the public impact of identifying them as guilty, but without penalizing one of their own too much."

The Iranian judiciary falls under the authority of the supreme leader. It includes civil, criminal and military courts. But it also has revolutionary courts used to prosecute those who are alleged to have committed acts considered un-Islamic, or that threaten national security.

Trials are often criticized for lack of evidence and not conforming to fundamental standards of due process, according to Hadi Ghaem, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Detainees can be held for long periods in solitary confinement, many are denied access to their lawyers and verdicts are often based on "confessions" extracted during interrogations, he wrote in a recent article about the Iranian judicial system.

Jasmin Ramsey, a spokeswoman for the centre, said it's not clear which court system would apply to those charged in connection with the downed plane but it could go under civilian or military systems based on who is being tried.

"It's very normal for cases that are very politically sensitive to be tried behind closed doors where access to counsel is severely restricted," she said.

She suggested it's difficult to predict what will happen to those who were just arrested but said it's rare to see high-level Iranian officials tried for deaths of Iranian civilians. She referred to the Iranian protesters who were tortured and killed in 2009 at the Kahrizak detention centre after that country's faltered Green Revolution.

"What [the regime] did is, they chose some low-level guards," she said. "Ultimately, a few people got slapped with a little bit of prison time. But the high-level people at the top pretty much got to walk free."

Former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who was found responsible in the deaths of three protesters imprisoned, was sentenced to two years in prison.

"The precedent — it doesn't speak positively for the idea that justice will be served," Ramsey said.

Jon Lindsay, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said it's unclear who, exactly the Iranians be will be investigating.

"Is it the crew of the SA-15 [missile system] that they're looking at? Is it somebody higher up in the chain of command? Do they have an idea of how this happened? Is it somebody that maybe should have issued a grounding with civilian aircraft, but didn't?"

"These are kind of all the logical points of responsibility, culpability you might look at. But I just don't have faith, given the compressed timeline, and the tremendous domestic chaos in Iran right now that any of that's going on."