OTTAWA - A Canadian spokesman for families and loved ones who were killed in Iran's Jan. 8 shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner says the regime is waging psychological warfare against them by refusing to release its flight recorders.
Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and nine-year-old daughter in the crash, says he wants the Canadian government to pursue Iran in the International Court of Justice because he says the regime is trying to prevent any meaningful investigation of the tragedy.
Esmaeilion's wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and daughter, Reera Esmaeilion, were among the 176 people killed when Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was hit by two Iranian missiles shortly after takeoff from Tehran airport.
Those killed included 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents, while dozens more passengers were also bound for Canada, many of them students and academics returning from a winter break.
Britain, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Sweden also lost citizens when the plane was destroyed, and the countries have formed an alliance with Canada to deal with Iran.
But Iran has still not lived up to its March 11 promise to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization to surrender the so-called black boxes to Ukrainian authorities by March 25.
"We don't see any progress with the investigation. The frustration is destroying all the families, not just me," Esmaeilion said in an interview on Tuesday.
"It's like a psychological war that Iran is pursuing against us. They want to divide and conquer. They have tried hard to try to divide Ukraine and try to simply refuse to follow any norms under the international obligations."
Esmaeilion said he agrees with the assessment of former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler who said Canada and its four partner countries would face a tough road in getting answers from the Iranian regime because of who was in charge of the investigation.
Iran appointed its chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi to oversee the investigation. Cotler, a lawyer for Iranian political prisoners and a longtime advocate for human rights, has said Raisi himself belongs in prison because he was complicit in the mass execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
"I think Mr. Cotler was absolutely right," said Esmaeilion.
Esmaeilion said the government was attentive and helpful to the needs of the families in January and February, But the COVID-19 outbreak in March, which has hit Iran particularly hard, slowed the federal government's response.
The situation eventually improved with the March 31 appointment of Ralph Goodale, a former public safety minister, to be the government's special adviser on the Iran crash.
Goodale met with representatives of the families two weeks ago, said Esmaeilion, and there was "good communication" and they were able to share their concerns.
"That's the good part, but we need more," said Esmaeilion.
He said the Iranian government is mounting an aggressive public relations campaign to essentially whitewash the crash. It had also cleaned up the crash site within days of the shootdown.
One report out of Iran earlier this week quoted a senior government official as saying the Iranian investigation was close to being over, and that there was nothing of value on the black boxes.
"Now 152 days have passed, and the black boxes are in Iran. This false information, this misinformation, this misdirection that Iran gives to the public, is unbelievable," said Esmaeilion.
Iran initially covered up the cause of the crash, but was forced to admit that its Revolutionary Guard fired two missiles at the plane. The tragedy unfolded after Iran launched missiles into Iraq at two American military bases in retaliation for the U.S. having killed its top general.
"We need to Iran to come forward and just prove that was a human error. But the first mistake is why they kept this space open?" Esmaeilion asked.
The families will be meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne in the coming weeks.
"We want to hear some good news from him because what we have heard so far, it was not satisfying for us," said Esmaeilion.
Champagne's office issued a statement on Tuesday that reiterated its commitment to pushing Iran to co-operate as the coalition of countries to push "for transparency, accountability, justice, and a full investigation to bring closure to the families of the victims."
Transport Minister Marc Garneau is to address ICAO on Wednesday, the statement added.
Esmaeilion said the events of Jan. 8 have plunged his life into a dark tunnel, "and I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel.
"Every morning when I get up, I say to my daughter, 'I will fight for you.' And to my wife, Parisa, both of them, 'I will fight for you.'
"I have no other way to go. That's my main purpose. To find the truth and find those perpetrators and criminals in international court. That's the only thing that can give me solace."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2020.