On the evening of January 7, 2020, Amirali Alavi had hoped to study, but the University of Toronto law and MBA student was distracted. His mother, Neda Sadighi, was set to fly back to Toronto after visiting family in Iran.
Just days earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump had ordered the assassination of a top Iranian general, and with tensions mounting in the region, Alavi was closely watching the news. Just after Sadighi left for Tehran’s main airport, he says, news came that Iran had launched retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. military targets in Iraq: “I started to freak out and call everybody I knew to stop my mom from going to the airport, because, in my mind, that was obviously one of the most unsafe locations to be.” But Sadighi had left behind the phone that she’d been using overseas and couldn’t be reached.
Alavi kept watch as his mother’s flight, PS752, was delayed for about an hour before it took off at 6:12 a.m. local time. The flight-tracker website he was using showed the plane clearing Iranian airspace. Feeling relieved, he opened Instagram on his phone. One of the first posts he saw was about a Ukrainian plane that had just crashed near Tehran, he recalls. At first, he wasn’t sure what to believe — the tracker or social media — but, after some hours, Alavi accepted that PS752 had crashed. “We go day by day, but it feels like our calendar has been stuck on January 8,” he says, referring to the date of the crash in Tehran. “Nothing has changed.”
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All 176 people aboard the plane died, including 138 bound for Canada. Iranian officials quickly attributed the crash to a mechanical failure. “Right away, I told my dad, ‘This is not a normal plane crash; this is not a mechanical failure,’” Alavi says. After several days of denials — and mounting international pressure — Iranian officials switched course, saying that “human error” had led to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps firing two surface-to-air missiles at the commercial aircraft.
After travelling to Iran to attend one of his mother’s memorials and repatriate her remains to Canada, Alavi says, he felt he needed to do something more, so he started connecting with other victims’ families. Together, they formed the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, of which Alavi is now a board member.
The group registered as a non-profit in Canada, held elections, organized family members into committees, conducted fact-finding, made a website, wrote letters, held press conferences, and met with officials, mostly amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We tried to really make our voices heard in the world and not let it be forgotten," Alavi says.
Last week — one year since the crash — the association organized a two-day event to remember the victims and call attention to questions that remain unanswered: Why did Iranian forces shoot at the plane? Why twice? Why was the flight delayed? How did other planes land and take off safely both beforehand and after? Why had air travel not been grounded?
Starting Thursday evening, the association streamed a roughly 12-hour, pre-recorded program on YouTube to memorialize the victims. The following afternoon, victims’ families marched from Queen’s Park to Nathan Phillips Square, where they assembled — physically distanced and masked — in front of Toronto’s city hall. Each held a sign with a photo of their loved one and one of two messages: “TRUTH FOR” or “JUSTICE FOR,” followed by the victim’s name. A truck parked on the side of the street spelled out a message to those driving by: “Not just a ‘human error.’”
A little after 4 p.m., the group started streaming their main program on YouTube. It
opened with a video of Alavi: “Today, after a year, we talk about what remains of us,” he said. The program ended with a statement in Farsi from Hamed Esmaeilion, a spokesperson for the association and a dentist in Aurora whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash.
In a video for the program, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “Canada will not stand for anything less than a comprehensive and honest explanation from the Iranian government of what, exactly, happened.”
Fifty faculty and students from Canadian universities had been aboard the plane, and several university heads also spoke to the tragedy. The principal of Queen’s University, Patrick Deane, remembered a third-year undergraduate student who had travelled to Iran to visit family over the winter break: “Our university community was gripped with a profound sadness, particularly when we found out that one of our own students, Amir Moradi, was among the victims.”
And there were other victims from schools in eastern Ontario. Three students at the University of Ottawa were killed: Mehraban Badiei Ardestani, a first-year undergraduate at the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences; Saeed Kadkhodazadeh Kashani, a doctoral candidate in chemistry set to complete his PhD in two years; and Alma Oladi, a first-year doctoral candidate in mathematics and statistics.
In a tweet, former MP Ralph Goodale, who was appointed by the Trudeau government as a special adviser related to the plane’s downing, called the association’s program “superbly done” and “very passionate and powerful.”
In December, Goodale released a report in which he said that it is understandable that families have a difficult time accepting Iran’s narrative of missile misalignment, communications failure, and misidentification of the commercial plane as a hostile target: “In the circumstances of this case, as known thus far, there are indications of incompetence, recklessness, and wanton disregard for innocent human life.”
Over the past year, Alavi says, the association has been in contact with aviation and military experts who’ve helped debunk the Iranian government’s claims of human error. For instance, he notes, they’ve pointed out that, while Iranian officials said the missile unit had been “misaligned,” in a city like Tehran — which is flanked by the Alborz mountains directly to the north — it takes “three seconds” to figure out in which direction one is looking. Military experts told the association that the first thing anyone shooting a missile would do is align the navigation unit.
Last week, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Iran has failed to conduct a “transparent and credible investigation” into the crash. The association shares this concern, Alavi says, and it is calling for a credible investigation by an independent body. The international watchdog also noted that the Iranian government has intimidated victims’ families, failed to return victims’ possessions, intruded on memorial services, and prosecuted at least 20 people for participating in peaceful protests about the downing; several prominent activists have been sentenced to multi-year prison terms.
What Alavi and the other families want, he says, is accountability from the Iranian government — and the truth of what happened.
"We know that this was not merely human error,” Alavi says. “Why did they sacrifice a plane full of innocent people — full of children, high-achieving young individuals, students, professors, doctors, just ordinary citizens — whose only crime was to buy a plane ticket to Iran to visit their families over the holidays?”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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