Families of victims seek justice over plane shot down in Iran

Puneh Gorji and Arash Pourzarabi were married in Iran on January 1. A week later, the newlyweds were returning to Canada to resume their studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton when their plane was shot down over the Iranian capital, Tehran.

All 176 people on board the Ukrainian airliner were killed.

“When I saw the name of my niece on the list of the victims, it was the worst experience of my life,” Gorji’s uncle, Ali Asghar Gorji, said via telephone from his house in Edmonton. “The only thing that can comfort me now is justice.”

The January 8 plane disaster occurred amid fears of an all-out war between Iran and the United States. Just days earlier, Washington had assassinated top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, prompting leaders in Tehran to pledge “severe revenge”. And hours before the plane crashed, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had fired more than a dozen short-range ballistic missiles at two bases hosting US troops in Iraq.

For three days afterwards, Iran denied any involvement in the downing of the plane. Then on January 11, Iran announced an IRGC operator had “unintentionally” shot down Flight PS752 amid fears of a counterattack by the US. The admission triggered scattered protests at universities in Tehran and other cities, shattering the sense of unity in Iran following Soleimani’s killing. Dozens of victims of the plane crash were graduates from Iranian universities who were visiting families in Iran while on holiday from fellowships, graduate schools and promising careers abroad.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, issued a statement calling the tragedy a “disastrous mistake”. He promised further investigations to prosecute perpetrators behind the incident and to inform families of the victims of the truth of what had happened. A spokesman for Iran’s judiciary on January 14 said several people accused of a role in the incident had been arrested, without elaborating further.

But Gorji does not believe the Iranian government would deliver justice.

“We believe that they committed this crime intentionally,” he said. “They allowed commercial flights on the same night they attacked bases in Iraq. That is a declaration of war and they have to cancel all commercial flights.”

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