A new report on the destruction of Flight PS752 drafted by the victims' families claims the government of Iran deliberately kept its airspace open to use civilian air passengers as human shields against a possible American attack.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight shortly after takeoff in Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020. Two surface-to-air missiles hit the plane, killing all 176 passengers onboard — including 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and others with ties to Canada.
Unsatisfied with the lack of answers from the various governments involved, including Canada's, families of the victims said they spent 17 months doing their own detective work. They say they conducted their own fact-finding mission — obtaining audio recordings of top Iranian officials, testing victims' phones from the crash site and consulting with military and air defence experts.
Hamed Esmaeilion, president of the association representing families of flight PS752 victims, said while they are grateful for the work governments have done, they are frustrated by the "limited progress achieved to date" on obtaining justice from Iran.
"Governments like that of Canada's have produced several reports in respect of Flight PS752, but they are limited in nature," wrote Esmaeilion, whose wife and daughter died on the plane.
In their 200-page report, the families say they believe the plane was shot down intentionally and that high-ranking Iranian officials were responsible — not just a handful of low-ranking IRGC members, as Iran has claimed.
"Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims believes that Flight PS752 was not shot down as a result of a human error of one operator, nor was it a consequence of multiple errors in the defence system as claimed by Iran," says the report.
The report points to Iran's decision to keep the airspace open on Jan. 8 after Iran's forces had fired missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were stationed. The attack was in retaliation for an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.
"At the highest levels of military alertness, the government of Iran used passenger flights as human shield against possible American attacks by deliberately not closing the airspace to civilian flights," says the report.
The report also cites multiple experts who have said the missile system and defence network used by the IRGC couldn't have mistaken the passenger plane for a hostile target, and that it wasn't possible for the missile system to have been left facing the wrong way, as Iran has claimed.
"...the destruction of existing evidence, and Iran's misleading reports, all indicate that the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 was deliberate," the report says.
WATCH | President of group representing victims' families on growing frustration with Iran
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly — alongside foreign ministers representing Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom — released a joint statement today expressing "deep disappointment that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not accepted our multiple requests to meet on Nov. 22 to negotiate the matter of reparations for the downing of Flight PS752."
Transport minister says government will examine report
Canada's official forensic examination of the crash, meanwhile, concluded that the government did not have evidence of its own proving the catastrophe was "premeditated."
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told CBC News the families' report seems to agree with many of the facts in the forensic report but arrives at a "different interpretation."
"Based on the examination and the evidence that we looked at and from a variety of sources, we couldn't find credible evidence it was intentionally or deliberately targeted," Alghabra told CBC News. "However, there's mounting evidence of significant negligence that could rise even to a level of criminality ..."
Alghabra said the government will review the family's report, adding it takes "their feedback extremely seriously."
The family's report presents what it calls new information that wasn't published in the government's forensic analysis.
Cellphones tampered with, report claims
The families report claims that a private investigator found that victims' cell devices retrieved from the scene and returned to families appeared to have been tampered with.
Esmaeilion said he was given a cell phone and smartwatch that Iranian authorities claimed belonged to his wife.
Esmaeilion said he turned the iPhone and watch over to the RCMP to analyze, only to be told seven months later that they didn't have the proper equipment. The families' association later gathered up the devices returned to families and gave them to a private investigator to analyze.
Mark Mendelson is a former detective with the Toronto Police Service who spent 14 years as a lead investigator with the homicide squad; he also analyzes smart phones, laptops and other electronic devices. According to the report, Mendelson found that screws had been removed and covers pried open on some recovered devices.
The report says Mendelson concluded that the evidence "strongly suggests that concerted efforts were made to extract [the memory/data] components, rendering a review of data impossible."
"A professional inspection of the devices that were returned to the families led our investigators to conclude that key memory and communication components of the electronic devices were damaged in a targeted manner after the crash," says the report.
The report also says many of the victims' belongings were stolen from the crash site and many passengers' personal devices were not returned.
Esmaeilion told CBC that he learned from the investigator that the damaged iPhone he was given did not even belong to his wife.
Report claims some bodies not properly identified
The report also claims that DNA testing in the U.K. and Canada shows that three of the repatriated remains contained unidentified human tissue belonging to someone else.
"The Association has obtained evidence that DNA testing on some victims' bodies did not match their stated identification by Iranian authorities," the report said.
"This neglectfulness on the part of the government of Iran has had serious psychological consequences for families, some of whom did not receive the whole bodies of their loved ones and were given the remains of other victims instead."
Some family members are now questioning whether Iran conducted DNA testing properly, or at all. In one case that CBC News is aware of, DNA testing was done correctly on a Canadian victim.
The families' report also found that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp operator of the missile system that shot down the plane had "vast experience and expertise," including service in Syria.
That conclusion is based on comments made by authorities at Tehran's military court and comments an Iranian prosecutor made during meetings with victims' families.
The report says military experts provided the families with data that suggest it's "highly unlikely" the operator misidentified the passenger plane as a cruise missile, as Iran has claimed. Cruise missiles and Boeing 737-800 passenger aircraft have major differences in length, speed, altitude and motion profiles which make them easy to distinguish from each other on a missile system operator's display, the report said.
"It is implausible that the missile system operator simply confused a much larger civilian aircraft, moving in more gradual patterns and at a slower speed, for a cruise missile," the report said.
The report also claims that human error can't account for the missile being aimed at a passenger aircraft.
"Our thorough analysis suggests that the alleged 105-degree error was an act of falsification carried out by Iran to convince the world that 'human error' in re-alignment of the Tor-M1 unit was the cause of the downing," the report said.
The report says that some of the passengers on Flight PS752 were asked by Iranian officials at a security checkpoint prior to departure if they had American passports or were headed to the U.S.
The report said another flight by Atlas Global Airlines that shared a scheduled time of departure from Tehran with Flight PS752 was not delayed and was given a different flight path — one that took it away from the missile installation.
Iran's final report on the crash claimed that its airspace in the western part of the country was closed to passenger planes as a preventative measure during a time of intense military activity. But the families' report said that, based on data from FlightRadar24, a global tracking service, Iran's airspace was not evacuated until 20 minutes prior to the downing of Flight PS742.
"In fact, all flights in the western corridors of the country were at risk from the time of attacks on U.S. bases until shortly before the downing of PS752," the report said.
Alghabra said he's been talking to Joly about the government's next steps. Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K. delivered a notice of claim against Iran demanding reparations in June; Tehran has yet to reply.
"The government is soon going to run out of patience and we're going to explore other options," said Alghabra. "We are going to pursue all options to achieve truth, justice and accountability for Canadian families."
He said one of those options could be to bring Iran before the International Court of Justice.
The families say they want to use the report to file a complaint independently with the International Criminal Court. They also plan to support countries bringing the case to the International Court of Justice.