Iran must come clean on the Ukraine airline strike

A new court hearing in Tehran is not set up to reveal where responsibility truly lies

A picture from Iran's Mizan News agency of the court in which 10 military personnel are on trial for the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752. AFP
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On January 8, 2020, two Iranian missiles struck Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 just minutes after its departure from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. It claimed the lives of all 176 passengers and crew. Victims were from Canada, Ukraine, Afghanistan and the UK, to name just a few.

The strike took place during a particularly tense period between the US and Iran, one which threatened gravely the security of the entire region. Nowhere was this more true than in Iraq, where Tehran had been consistently ramping up attacks on US and Iraqi targets via its many proxies in the country. Then, less than a week before flight PS752 was shot down, former US president Donald Trump ordered an air strike that killed one of Iran's most prominent generals at the time, Qassem Suleimani.

Tensions reached boiling point. But the biggest number of deaths during the episode would turn out not to be among military personnel, rather unassuming passengers onboard a defenceless civilian aircraft.

The events leading up to the flight PS752 disaster are under intense investigation. The facts we know so far are that two missiles hit the plane just after takeoff. But almost two years on, little more is known about the conditions that led to the disaster, and who is responsible. This is not for want of trying; Ukraine and Canada have completed lengthy reports on the matter.

Iran's efforts to get to the truth are lacking, however. On Sunday, a new trial began and 10 anonymous military defendants of "various rank" are in the docks. Nonetheless, there are grounds to suspect the process is not being conducted in good faith. Pictures from state media of the courtroom show the judge sitting in front of a banner emblazoned with, "the court reviewing the incident of flight PS752 Ukraine", which some victims say deflects the fact that it was Iran's forces that downed the plane. The scene appears more photoshoot than court of law.

Due process, not pictures, will get justice for the victims. It will be a long campaign. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Iran's armed forces denied any responsibility, blaming it instead on a fire. It eventually admitted that the IRGC mistakenly shot down the plane, but 22 months since, no new details have emerged. Instead, international aviation experts investigating the scene have been closely monitored and there are accusations that the crash site and evidence related to it was tampered with, including the personal belongings of victims.

The heart of the case should be determining where responsibility lies, something that will be hard to do in a system that is widely mistrusted. Indeed, Ukraine's ambassador to Tehran, Sergey Burdylyak, has said he will not attend this latest court case, in protest of what his country says is Iranian non-compliance "with obligations under international law and to provide requested information to Ukrainian authorities".

The many families and countries affected by the strike should be able to follow a robust and open judicial process, rather than look on as pre-approved pictures are released in drabs. The trial can build such legitimacy by making public vital documents relating to the events, miscommunications and lax protocols that led the strike being launched.

Most importantly and, unfortunately, most unlikely, Iran must hold those who are truly responsible to account. Only that will make sure such an inexcusable tragedy never happens again.

Published: November 24, 2021, 3:00 AM