May 4, 2023 | Toronto Sun

Canada must seek justice for victims of Flight PS752

May 4, 2023 | Toronto Sun

Canada must seek justice for victims of Flight PS752

Tehran says it is exacting justice for the victims of Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752, which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down in January 2020 as it took off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 people on board. The victims included 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents as well as Ukrainians, Swedes, Afghans, Germans, Swiss, and Brits.

Canada shouldn’t be fooled.

After more than three years of stalling, Iran’s judiciary now claims its military court has sentenced 10 alleged perpetrators of the shootdown to prison. But tellingly, Tehran won’t identify the names of the defendants, who weren’t present at court hearings. There’s no indication that they include any of the IRGC’s top leaders. It’s unclear how the judicial process unfolded. And Iran has failed to provide a credible account of the events leading up to the shootdown. As it so often does in Iran, the judicial process reached a decision likely dictated by the executive branch.

Tehran probably seeks to deflect responsibility by attributing the tragedy to the incompetence of low-level functionaries. That hardly constitutes justice.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to grasp this reality. After Iran’s announcement, Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine issued a joint statement condemning Tehran’s “sham trials,” which did not bring “truth or justice to the families of the victims, as the entire process—starting with Iran’s biased investigation into the downing — lacked the necessary impartiality and transparency.”

In reality, Tehran’s cover-up began almost immediately after the shootdown: Iran quickly bulldozed the crash site and confiscated victims’ belongings. Regime agents harassed, arrested, and threatened family members of victims to dissuade them from publicly criticizing Tehran. Iranian security forces arrested hundreds of protesters criticizing the shootdown.

Iran’s excuses strained credulity. For example, Tehran claimed that IRGC forces mistook the plane for a cruise missile. But the aircraft was much larger than a cruise missile and flew at a high altitude that would be unusual for such a projectile.

An independent United Nations report released in December 2020 notes that Iran’s narrative “appears potentially to be contrived to mislead in one or more ways” and “led many to question whether the downing of the flight PS752 was not intentional.” In May 2021, Ontario judge Edward Belobaba ruled that the shootdown was “intentional” and an “act of terrorism.” In January 2022, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s National Defence and Security Council secretary, called the shootdown “a terrorist act” set in motion by “an order from senior management.”

Ottawa should act accordingly. Despite its strong rhetoric criticizing the trial, Ottawa has failed to deploy one of the most impactful tools in its economic and political arsenal: designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization pursuant to Canada’s Criminal Code. The government has also refrained from supporting the prosecution of the case at the International Criminal Court.

The reason for Trudeau’s hesitation remains unclear. But without the designation and prosecution, Ottawa’s rhetoric lacks significance: Iran will only come clean if the cost of intransigence far exceeds the benefits.

To be sure, a designation and prosecution alone won’t be sufficient to change Iran’s behaviour — that would require a campaign of maximum economic and political pressure by the international community. But a designation would set an example for European countries — particularly those that lost citizens on flight PS752 — and exacerbate Iran’s international isolation.

Most of all, a designation and prosecution would help bring justice and accountability to the families of the victims. For this reason if no other, Ottawa bears a responsibility to punish Iran now.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow and senior editor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. @TzviKahn.


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