Families of those who died aboard Flight PS752 say they left a meeting with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki this week disappointed and frustrated that, 17 months after the shootdown, the Mounties have not accepted Ukraine’s offer to establish a joint investigative team or launch its own criminal investigation in Canada.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down the commercial aircraft on Jan. 8, 2020, killing all 176 people onboard, including 55 Canadians and 35 permanent residents.
The families say Lucki told them that the case is too difficult and complex to investigate on Canadian soil since only Iran has access to the evidence gathered from the scene.
Kouroush Doustshenas’ fiancée Dr. Forough Khadem died on Flight PS752. He told a parliamentary committee probing the government’s response on Thursday evening that he cannot understand the RCMP’s decision.
“One hundred and seventy six dead bodies,” said Doustshenas. “I think that’s enough reason to start a criminal investigation. I understand they might not have access to all the evidence in Iran, but that should not be a reason not to open a criminal investigation.”
Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada, Shevchenko Andriy, said his country asked Ottawa in April 2020 to create a joint investigation team. More than a year later, it says it hasn’t received an answer.
“It is our understanding that the Ukraine’s [joint investigative team] proposal is under consideration along with other tools of international legal assistance,” wrote Andriy in a statement to CBC News.
Help has been ‘very slow’
After the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in 2014, a joint investigation team formed by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine concluded that a Russian missile was to blame. Canada lost one citizen in that catastrophe; the federal government said at the time it “supported” the investigation and trial but Canada was not part of the joint team.
The RCMP said in a statement to CBC News that while joint investigative teams are used by other countries, the federal government consulted with its “legal advisers” about doing so for Flight PS752 and concluded they can’t be used here.
“A Joint Investigative Team (JIT) is used in many European jurisdictions, however, this concept does not exist in Canadian law,” said the RCMP.
Instead, the RCMP said Canada is supporting Ukraine’s investigation through its RCMP officers in Ukraine and is sharing evidence.
But Ukraine says it’s been left in the dark for months about previous evidence.
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CBC News reported in February the Canadian government and security agencies had an audio recording that sources identified as the voice of Iran’s foreign affairs minister discussing the possibility that the destruction of Flight PS752 was an intentional act. Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada said his country was not informed of the recording at the time.
At the time, the government said a mechanism had not been set up to securely exchange evidence. Ukraine’s embassy now says Canada has shared some information and other information requests are pending.
Daniel Ghods-Esfahani, who lost his girlfriend in the tragedy, said the association representing victims’ families in Canada fears that the evidence-sharing has been insufficient.
“That help has been very slow,” said Ghods-Esfahani.
‘They have a cyberarmy’
Hamed Esmaeilion, a spokesperson for victims’ families in Canada, told the parliamentary committee Thursday evening that families want a criminal investigation because they still don’t know everything that happened on Jan. 8, 2020.
“It seems as if an entire airplane has been lost in the clouds of international diplomacy,” said Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and nine-year-old daughter that day.
He said a dozen family members have been harassed and threatened by Iran’s regime and its supporters — some of them in Canada — and they continue to share reports with RCMP that should be part of a larger investigation on Canadian soil.
“They have a cyberarmy and use it in different social media platforms and they send us messages, some fake and real accounts,” Esmaeilion told the parliamentary committee.
“If we don’t open a criminal case here, If we don’t put everything together as a comprehensive job, I think we can’t find the truth and teach them a lesson that they can’t interfere with Canadian citizens here in Canada.”
Forensic examination report coming
The government has said it has instructed a forensic examination team to piece together all available foreign intelligence and evidence. The team’s report is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Ralph Goodale, Canada’s new high commissioner to the United Kingdom, said the skies over Tehran are just as dangerous today as they were 17 months ago. He said the risk assessment Iran conducted before firing missiles at Iraq was incompetent.
“They didn’t bother to alert the airline companies to the fact there was danger in those skies,” Goodale told the committee Thursday night.
“That there were missile operators in position, quite literally with their fingers over the triggers ready and able to shoot down civilian aircraft. That’s just a bit of the flavour of this horrendous conduct.”
Victims’ families are scheduled to speak again with Lucki on June 15. The group continues to call on the government to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.