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Crime & Justice

Tehran stalls on Ukraine airliner disaster as world demands answers

By Ardeshir Kordestani

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This handout picture provided by the Iranian Civil Aviation Organisation on January 9, 2020, shows Iranian and Ukrainian aviation experts meeting in Tehran to investigate the circumstances of the crash of Ukrainian Boeing 737. [HO/Iran Civil Aviation Organisation/AFP]

More than a year after Iranian forces accidentally blew a Ukrainian airliner out of the sky, Tehran is still engaged in a cover-up.

An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) missile battery operator fired two missiles at Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020, in an incident the government later admitted was a "catastrophic mistake".

The Kyiv-bound airliner went down just hours after Tehran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of IRGC's Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

Two days before the first anniversary of the tragedy, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged that "the person responsible" for the incident and "those who showed poor judgment" would be brought to justice.

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Rescue teams are seen on January 8, 2020, at the scene of a Ukrainian airliner that crashed shortly after take-off near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran. [Akbar Tavakoli/IRNA/AFP]

"Those who caused this incident must be tried fairly," he said. "The government insists on this, and the judiciary will do so."

Last January, Iran's judiciary said it had arrested "several people" in connection with the incident but to date has named no one.

A year later, judicial officials stated that one person is imprisoned on related charges, without releasing the detainee's name or other details.

Victims of the crash included 82 Iranians, more than 50 Iranian-Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, as well as nationals from Sweden, the UK, Afghanistan and Germany. In total, 176 people perished.

Iranian authorities have not fully answered Ukraine's questions about the event, Kiev has said.

Canadian officials also have demanded answers from Iran, while a group of Iranian-Canadian families whose loved ones died on the flight say the Iranian regime is pressuring bereaved families in Iran to accept payouts for the deaths.

Tehran stalling

In his January 6 statement, Rouhani said Tehran would pay the equivalent of $150,000 for each person who perished in the incident.

The Iranian parliament (Majles) passed the compensation bill in December, but the victims' families have refused the payout, saying the regime should first name the responsible individuals and bring them to justice.

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevhenii Yenin also criticised Iran for failing to fully co-operate with the investigation.

Receiving reparations is not "our only goal", Yenin told Radio Farda on January 6. "Justice is the most important value."

Yenin, who is in charge of following up on the incident, asked that Tehran announce the "real" reasons behind targeting the plane with two deadly missiles.

Kyiv is waiting for the identification and punishment of the "real" Iranian officials responsible for shooting down the plane, he said.

In October, Yenin complained that Iranian officials appeared to be stalling on the incident report. He also criticised the Iranian government's lack of transparency in the investigation.

"We have repeatedly told the Iranian side that any attempts to bribe us, to exchange the truth for one or another level of compensation in this case will fail," Yenin said at the time, as Tehran and Kiev were engaged in a round of talks on the crash.

'Lie, cover up and mislead'

The Islamic Republic "has mounted an active campaign to lie, to cover up and to mislead all the governments, parties and families" affected by the incident, said Iranian-American journalist Shahin Mohammadi.

Iran "accepted responsibility only after the US, Canada and other countries said there were indications the aircraft had been shot down", he said.

Mohammadi dismissed the Iranian regime's offer of compensation.

The amount is "insignificant and deficient, considering that in similar incidents, internationally, the payments have been around $1 million or more for each victim", he said.

Despite video and circumstantial evidence pointing to a surface-to-air missile hitting the airliner, Tehran continued for days to deny a missile strike took down Flight 752.

On January 11, Rouhani finally admitted the truth -- that the IRGC shot down the plane.

In the months that followed, reporting from Persian-language media hinted at a likely breakdown in communication between the missile battery operator and IRGC command.

The IRGC personnel who fired the missiles were unable to communicate with higher officials because they had faulty communication equipment, some sources said.

"Whatever happened, it is clear that the people operating the battery did not have enough training to differentiate between an incoming projectile and a passenger plane," a former Iranian naval analyst said on condition of anonymity.

Iran's statements 'should not be trusted'

At the time Rouhani and other officials tried to distance themselves from the IRGC's catastrophic error.

Shortly after the incident, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif both said they were "unaware" of what had happened until they saw press coverage.

In a statement on the anniversary of the incident, Zarif reiterated he was "among the officials, who, like other people, followed media speculations in the hours leading up to the announcement" that the IRGC was, in fact, responsible for shooting down the airplane.

He then described the event as the result of a "horrifying error of one or several individuals".

Iranian officials' statements on the downing of the aircraft should not be trusted, Mohammadi said.

"We have no reason to believe them," he said. "It is still not clear to Iran's people -- to the public or to journalists like me -- why events transpired as they did. Why was the first missile fired at all? Why was the second missile fired?"

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