Grieving relatives harassed by Iranian officials over downed jet campaign

Canadian police are investigating at least 11 cases in which relatives have complained of harassment and intimidation

Families who lost loved ones in the destruction of Flight PS752 held protests today in Toronto, Canada on October 5, 2020. Iran's military shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight shortly after takeoff in Tehran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 passengers onboard -- including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.  (Photo by Sayed Najafizada/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Despite losing his wife and daughter on flight PS752, Hamed Esmaeilion had become accustomed to anonymous abuse as he sought the truth behind the downing of the jet over Tehran a year ago.

As the anniversary looms, the outspoken spokesman for the families revealed to The National enraged pro-regime supporters sent him threats and taunts on social media and to his phone.

The abuse took an even darker turn on October 5 when he attended a rally in Ottawa, Canada, to urge international action against Iran.

That night, relatives spotted an unmarked car pulling up outside his home about 400 kilometres away, in what was taken as a menacing warning amid a rash of other messages to Mr Esmaeilion, mainly from Iran.

On the day as the rally, he received the latest call from a person who told him: ‘Let’s talk about the last moments of your wife and your daughter’.

The following day he received an Instagram message that urged him to enjoy his life before he was killed. “You will be a lesson for traitors outside of the country,” the message said.

"Police came, they checked the cameras but they couldn't find the car," Mr Esmaeilion told The National. "It was that coincidence of several things together. The car, the phone call and the Instagram message the day after. So I put everything together and just reported it to the police."

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police was investigating at least 11 cases of intimidation against relatives in Canada by late summer, according to Ralph Goodale, the Canadian prime minister’s special adviser on the crash. “Some of the families feel they are being stalked,” said Mr Goodale.

Most of the cases were of intimidation over the phone and abuse on social media, he said, but “in a couple of cases, the person involved has been clearly identified as a representative of the Government of Iran”.

He said there were also reports of the withholding of personal effects found at the crash site, and detentions and interrogations in Iran. Some families decided against joining legal action against the regime because they feared reprisals if they ever returned to Iran, said Habib Haghjoo, whose daughter and granddaughter died in the crash.

Canada’s CBC News reported in July that the head of the Iran investigation, Hassan Rezaeifar, was removed after he put pressure on the widower of a crash victim to remove a post on Instagram that was critical of the Iranian regime.

Javad Soleimani, a Canada-based postgraduate student, had written that Iranians would not forget about crimes the regime committed.

“Please delete it from your Instagram,” Mr Rezaeifar said, according to a copy of the call secured by the broadcaster. “Do you agree that out of 83 million people of Iran, only 10 or 12 people have hurt you? Why should those other 82 million people be insulted by this post?”

Amirali Alavi, whose mother died on the flight, said relatives of victims in Iran have been routinely harassed by the Iranian authorities.

One man, whose brother died in the crash, said he had been warned that his father’s treatment in an intensive care unit in Iran would be halted if he continued to criticise the regime, said Mr Alavi, a law student and spokesman for the PS752 campaign group.

He said there were numerous reports of families being pushed aside at funerals in Iran to guard against protests, while other families had been forced to flee the country after being assaulted.

“For the families of victims going through such pain, to be subject to such treatment is just unacceptable,” he said.

The RCMP said it was aware of the allegations of intimidation and was taking the complaints seriously.

“While we cannot comment on individual cases, Canadians and all individuals living in Canada, regardless of their nationality, should feel safe and free from criminal activity,” it said in a statement. “Anyone who believes a crime is or has been committed against them should report it to their local police.”

In his report, Mr Goodale said harassment, intimidation, threats, hate speech, terrorism and foreign interference should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. “The Government of Canada takes a very dim view of such abusive activity in this country,” he said.