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‘Frozen in time’: A year after Iran downed Ukrainian plane, victims’ families still hunt for justice

People attend a ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, one year after their relatives were killed in the downing of a passenger plane by Iran. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

KYIV, Ukraine — In the year since their loved ones died in the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran, they've learned the nuances of aviation law. They've scanned Iranian news sites daily for any clues on why the passenger plane was shot down just minutes after takeoff from Tehran.

They've consoled each other. They also shared their anger.

“It’s like we’re frozen in time. We’re stuck,” said Navaz Ebrahim, whose newlywed sister and brother-in-law were among the 176 killed Jan. 8, 2020, when missiles struck the plane bound for Kyiv.

The past year has turned into a waiting game for answers and closure.

Iran, while admitting responsibility for the air disaster that killed everyone on board, has rebuffed calls for a more transparent investigation, blaming “human error” and denying any systemic flaws. While the government has said it has made arrests over the incident, names have not been released.

Tehran says it has offered the families of those killed $150,000 per victim, but several families said they want justice, not money, and have called on Ukraine or one of the other countries with citizens killed in the crash to bring a case against Iran to the International Court of Justice.

There were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians and 10 Swedes on the plane, as well as Afghans, Germans and British nationals.

“What they’re offering to the families right now is blood money,” Ebrahim said. “They just want to close the case.”

'Disastrous mistake'

Saghar Nourian and her sister, 26-year-old Ghazal, were visiting their family in Iran when a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020.

Saghar and her husband flew home to the United States on Jan. 6, but Ghazal’s flight back to Canada wasn’t for two more days.

Just hours before Ghazal’s flight, Iran fired more than a dozen short-range ballistic missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. But the airspace remained open for Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 to Kyiv.

“I talked to [Ghazal] 30 minutes before boarding, and she didn’t know about the high tension between Iran and the U.S. It was me telling her about it,” Saghar said. “She started crying. She was super worried, not for herself but for the family in Iran.”

Saghar fainted when she saw the news three days later that Iran admitted to shooting down the plane. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called it a “disastrous mistake.” Iran claimed that the operators who fired missiles were unable to distinguish the passenger jet from potentially hostile aircraft and proceeded without contacting their superiors.

Iran admits to downing airliner amid calls for justice, transparency

According to the military prosecutor in Tehran, Gholam Abbas Torki, six people were arrested for their role in the tragedy, five of whom have been released on bail. The trial is scheduled to start later this month, said Torki, who led the state’s investigation.

Calls for international intervention

Victims’ families said that alone isn’t sufficient. They have demanded to know the names of those charged, their punishment and a detailed explanation as to what went wrong. But under International Civil Aviation Organization rules, Iran leads the investigation because the plane was downed in Iran.

Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said this month that it had distributed a draft of the final accident report to the concerned countries, after which the findings will be made public.

Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and young daughter in the crash and is the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, said the families want the case brought to the International Court of Justice regardless of what the final accident report says.

The families have lost confidence in Iran to investigate its own actions fairly, he said.

“In case Ukraine sees that our efforts don’t take us anywhere, we don’t exclude a possibility to refer this dispute to an international legal forum,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in a statement to The Washington Post.

Andriy Guck, a Ukrainian aviation lawyer representing the family of one of the victims, said he doesn’t expect Ukraine to take that action until after it is finished evaluating the final accident report from Iran, perhaps not until early spring.

Ironically, a precedent for International Court of Justice involvement is the Iran Air flight shot down by the U.S. military over the Persian Gulf in 1988, which killed all 290 people aboard. The two sides reached a settlement in 1996 at the International Court of Justice in which the United States did not admit liability but agreed to pay up to $300,000 to families of each of the passengers.

Shoot-down of passenger jet near Tehran mirrors 1988 Iran Air tragedy

Separate from Iran’s investigation of the crash, Ukraine opened its own criminal case. But Kuleba expressed frustration with Tehran’s lack of cooperation and said it “significantly delays the process at every stage.”

“We have sent several requests for legal assistance to Iran. Some of them have never been responded to; the responses we did receive have so far been unsatisfactory,” he said. “Furthermore, during our talks Iran agreed to set up a joint investigation team, but no practical steps have been taken in this direction since.”

Seeking compensation

Iran, cash-strapped in part due to U.S. sanctions, said it would offer the families of the deceased $150,000 per victim, though none of the families are believed to have accepted or received that payment.

Iranian officials have accused Canadian and Ukrainian authorities of stalling negotiations and “politicizing” the tragedy, saying the two nations are not “ready” to discuss compensation. Kuleba said Ukraine hasn’t “received any official information on the matter from Iran.”

Peter Neenan, a partner at London law firm Stewarts, wrote in a commentary that an appropriate compensation would be $400,000 per victim, a calculation he based on the United States paying $300,000 to victims’ families in the 1988 tragedy.

Katerina Gaponenko, the widow of the flight’s captain, Volodymyr Gaponenko, said she doesn’t expect to receive reparations for at least three years.

She got some financial support from the Ukrainian government and her husband’s insurance through the airline, but with two young girls at home, she appealed to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko for help finding work. He placed her in a job at the Kyiv City State Administration that she started this month.

She’ll wait for compensation if it means getting answers.

“The key issue for me is to hear the real reason for the plane crash,” she said. “We cannot bring back to life the captain, the crew and the passengers. The matter of reparation is not the key one in this case.”

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow and Cunningham from Istanbul.

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