'Open wound in the sky': Families honour loved ones who died when Iran shot down passenger jet 2 years ago

·5 min read
A flower is placed next to the photos of Iman and Parinaz Ghaderpanah on a memorial wall at a vigil in Toronto on Saturday, January 8, 2022. The pair were among the 176 victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 that was shot down by Iranian forces two years ago. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A flower is placed next to the photos of Iman and Parinaz Ghaderpanah on a memorial wall at a vigil in Toronto on Saturday, January 8, 2022. The pair were among the 176 victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 that was shot down by Iranian forces two years ago. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Family members of those who died aboard a passenger jet that was shot down by Iranian military forces two years ago commemorated their loved ones on Saturday with a solemn ceremony and renewed calls for justice.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired two surface-to-air missiles at the Ukraine International Airlines plane on Jan. 8, 2020, shortly after takeoff in Tehran, killing everyone onboard.

Fifty-five Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents were among those who died. Many more of the 176 people killed in the crash had ties to Canada.

A partially virtual ceremony was organized by the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims to mark the second anniversary of the tragedy. Called "The Open Wound in the Sky," the two-and-a-half-hour event was broadcast from Toronto. Afterward, hundreds gathered at Mel Lastman Square in the city's north end for an outdoor vigil.

The virtual ceremony began with a recorded recitation in Persian of the poem On The Threshold by the late Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, followed by a video summarizing the events since the crash and the families' ongoing fight for accountability.

Three mothers who lost family members in the crash then took turns reading aloud the names and ages of each of the 176 victims.

"Two years ago this day ... the world lost 176 hopeful, lively people to an unimaginable act of brutality," said Amirali Alavi, the MC of the event, whose mother died in the crash.

"They were children, students, young couples, entire families and all-around innocent people who were loved dearly and are now missed terribly."

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Videos that were played throughout the ceremony broadcast messages from family members who continue to mourn.

"The downing of the plane, the murder of all those young people, all the decent human beings, is like the death of my own hopes and desires," one woman said.

Another asked, "What had my beloved child, my dear daughter-in-law and their sweet fellow passengers done to deserve being set aflame by you in the sky of our homeland?"

Families demand justice

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.

But Canada and its allies, including the United Kingdom, have rejected that explanation as insufficient and called for an independent investigation.

Efforts to negotiate compensation for the families have stalled, and Iran recently snubbed another deadline set by Canada.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Hamed Esmaeilion, the association's president who lost his wife and nine-year-old daughter in the tragedy, spoke passionately about his frustration over the lack of accountability from the Iranian regime for what he called "cold-blooded murder."

"They told us to be patient and we listened. They told us that all options were on the table, and we waited for these options to be checked off. But now, after two years, we realize that our patience has not paid off," Esmaeilion said. "Canada must stand for justice, and it is time for us all to stand on the right side of the history — today, now and with urgency."

The group is demanding that the case go before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — a United Nations agency based in Montreal — and that the RCMP launch a criminal investigation.

WATCH |Federal officials, RCMP unhelpful with PS752 legal case, says victim's twin brother:

It is also calling for arrest warrants and formal government sanctions against senior Iranian political and military leaders, and for the designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

"We keep writing polite letters, one after another," Esmaeilion said of the federal government. "We will not relent with an empty, shallow apology and political gamesmanship.... We shall never forget, nor shall we ever forgive."

Saturday's ceremony included speeches from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and three of his cabinet ministers. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory also participated virtually.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Trudeau pledges support, Conservatives call for action

Trudeau said the federal government will continue to support the families of the victims and fight for accountability, transparency and justice.

"Flight PS752 was shot down because of the recklessness and complete disregard for human life of Iranian officials. We cannot allow that to stand," he said.

"Now that Iran has failed to meet the goal for negotiations, we will be vigorously continuing with other international mechanisms for accountability and justice. Canada will stand together with the members of the [International Co-ordination and Response Group for the victims of Flight PS752] as a united front and we will not rest until Iran is held accountable," Trudeau said, referring to a group formed by countries who lost citizens in the crash.

The federal Conservatives called on the Liberal government to impose sanctions on Iranian officials following a lack of co-operation from the regime.

"Those responsible for this attack must be held to account, and the Liberal government has a responsibility to assist the victims' families in seeking justice," MPs Michael Chong, James Bezan and Melissa Lantsman said in a statement.

"Iran's refusal to negotiate compensation for the victims makes it clear the Liberal government must use every tool available domestically and internationally."

The Conservatives are also demanding that the government launch discussions with the ICAO "to limit Iran's ability to operate commercial aircraft in international airspace until they agree to abide by international norms in the investigation."

On Monday, an Ontario court awarded more than $107 million to families of six of the victims, though it remains unclear how the money might be collected from Iran.

The decision followed a May ruling that the missile attack amounted to an intentional act of terrorism, paving the way for relatives of those killed to seek compensation from the regime.

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