OTTAWA — Grieving relatives will mark three years since the Iranian military shot down Flight PS752 on Sunday by holding rallies across the country and pushing Ottawa to take a tougher stance against Iran.
"It has been a long journey for the families, but we still have hope," said Hamed Esmaeilion, head of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.
Esmaeilion's wife and daughter were among the 176 people killed when Iranian officials shot down a Ukraine International Airlines jetliner in January 2020 shortly after its take-off from Tehran.
Most of the passengers were bound for Canada via Ukraine, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.
In an interview, Esmaeilion thanked Canadians for their support over the past three years, as families fight for accountability and compensation.
"That was very heartwarming for every one of us, that we see people care."
On Dec. 28, Canada joined peer countries in starting the process to send the Flight PS752 case to the International Court of Justice and attempt to force Iran to compensate victims' families.
Ottawa had previously held off, arguing that allowing enough time for negotiations with Iran over reparations would bolster the case if it needed to be heard by a tribunal.
But with negotiations at a standstill, Canada helped issue a formal notice last month asking Iran to submit to binding arbitration in the case. The move kicks off a six-month period after which one of the plaintiff countries can take Iran to the International Court of Justice.
The Iranian regime has had shifting responses to the incident, at one point portraying it was an accident and then later claiming the plane had been moving suspiciously, which contradicts the findings of an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
While it's unclear whether the court would successfully compel Iran to provide compensation, the case would likely prompt more investigation and shed light on new information about what happened.
"This step was long overdue. But having said that, it's a good step to take," said Esmaeilion, who said he is buoyed by an Ontario court ruling in 2021 that said the downing was an intentional act of terrorism — not an accident.
"This senseless, merciless crime that they committed took all of them from us."
He commended Ottawa for putting economic sanctions on 62 Iranian individuals and 25 entities last fall. Yet he says about one-third of the 30 people his group has identified as being involved in downing Flight PS752 have not been sanctioned.
He added that Iranian-Canadians are aware that former regime officials and their families still move about freely in the country, from Vancouver to Halifax.
Ottawa has promised to stand up a new sanctions bureau, allocating $76 million to better track those barred from dealings in Canada. But it's unclear when new staff will be hired and trained.
Esmaeilion said he's frustrated by bureaucrats who suggest that sanctions are less a way to punish specific individuals and more a way to nudge regimes into behaving better. He argued Iran will not improve the way it treats people unless it faces clear pushback, and noted that the regime has been responsible for killing Canadians in other cases.
Iranian officials "have no place in a free country like Canada," he said.
In the fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced sustained pressure from the Iranian diaspora and the Opposition Conservatives to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
The force, which is part of Iran's military, shot down Flight PS752 and is responsible for much of the regime's violent meddling abroad.
It has also taken part in the ongoing crackdown on human-rights activists following the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, following her arrest by morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.
In October, Trudeau's government barred more than 10,000 former IRGC members from entering Canada, but it has remained hesitant to list the entire corps as a terrorist organization because it could punish those conscripted into the force for non-combat roles.
Immigration lawyers have said that some Iranian-born Canadians already face difficulty boarding aircraft and entering the United States due to past IRGC membership.
Conservative MPs and activists like Esmaeilion have argued that Canada could find a legislative way to avoid punishing those drafted against their will.
They also point to reports from British media this month that suggest London is getting ready to list the force as a terrorist group, citing unnamed government sources. The reporting did not lay out a timeline or details on any provisions related to conscripts.
Kaveh Shahrooz, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said Ottawa seems to be dragging its feet.
"Over the past three years, I think it's been very slow movement," said Shahrooz, who used to advise Global Affairs Canada on human-rights treaties.
He said the same was true on efforts to seek justice in the PS752 case while negotiations with Tehran were underway.
"There has been no criminal investigation by the RCMP," Shahrooz said. "There's no reason these things can't move on parallel tracks."
On Friday, Trudeau met with family members of Flight PS752 victims, alongside Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Canada's High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, Ralph Goodale, who helped co-ordinate the government's response.
"When I spoke with the families of the victims today, I promised them we'll continue to be relentless in our fight for truth, justice and accountability," Trudeau said on Twitter.
Some Liberal MPs have also started symbolically sponsoring Iranian dissidents, following a similar trend by European parliamentarians.
The MPs are committing to raising the cases of specific dissidents incarcerated in Iran to pressure Tehran not to execute them and, as one letter signed by MPs puts it, "remind the Iranian regime that we are watching, that the world is watching."
Shahrooz has criticized the Liberals for what he sees as prioritizing symbolic gestures over policy changes. But he said this initiative can have a tangible impact for people at risk of death.
"Over the years, in speaking with former political prisoners, they've always told me that ... when foreign officials speak about them, the situation tends to improve remarkably," he said.
"Interrogators back off; often times, torture stops and the regime remembers these prisoners have defenders outside."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press