UN criticises Iran’s ‘reckless disregard’ and lies about downing of Ukrainian plane

Bereaved relatives had to praise Iran’s government to have victims’ remains returned

Relatives of the 11 Ukrainians who died in a plane mistakenly shot down by Iran in January, react during a ceremony unveiling a memorial stone at the site of the future monument at the Boryspil International airport outside Kiev on February 17, 2020. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)
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A UN human rights expert on Tuesday accused Iran of “reckless disregard” for human life in the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet last January and of seeking to bewilder investigations into the tragedy afterwards.

Agnes Callamard, a UN rapporteur on summary executions and other abuses, said Iran should have closed its airspace to civilian aircraft early last year when tension was running high after the US assassinated a top Iranian general.

Ms Callamard’s rebuke of Iranian authorities comes as US President Joe Biden’s administration seeks to revive a 2015 nuclear arms reduction deal with Iran, despite concern that the country is a threat to regional stability.

“In situations of high military tension, the most effective means to prevent attacks on civil aviation is to close the airspace,” Ms Callamard said.

“Had Iran, knowing full well that hostilities with the US could readily escalate, closed its airspace for civilian traffic that evening, 176 human beings would not have been killed.”

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Cops said it accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane shortly after it took off from Tehran for Kiev on January 8, 2020, killing everyone on board.

Iranian officials said they mistook the Boeing 737-800 for a missile in the tense days after the killing of Iranian military chief Qassem Suleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq.

The Ukrainian jet was downed hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against American forces in neighbouring Iraq in response to Suleimani's assassination.

Ms Callamard also accused Iran of destroying evidence, releasing false and incomplete information and of failing to prosecute those most responsible for the tragedy – not only the low-level staffers who were arrested and charged.

“The inconsistencies in the official explanations seem designed to create a maximum of confusion and a minimum of clarity. They seem contrived to mislead and bewilder,” Ms Callamard said.

“As for the mistakes that have been admitted, they suggest at minimum a reckless disregard for standard procedures and for the principles of precaution, which should have been implemented to the fullest given the circumstances and the location of the missile unit in the proximity of a civilian airfield.”

In the weeks after the tragedy, Iranian authorities committed more human rights abuses by subjecting relatives of the victims to "harassment, intimidation, threats and physical assault" in an attempt to burnish the regime's image, Ms Callamard said.

“The authorities allegedly denied the families access to the crash site and seemed to not return the entirety of passengers’ belongings to them, with the result that many families were left without even the smallest mementos of those who lost their lives,” she said.

“Iranian officials further thought to coerce families into publicly declaring their support for the government or risk the non-return of their loved ones’ remains. Many families were also reportedly denied private funerals.”

Last month on the anniversary of the tragedy, Ms Callamard called for urgent new measures to protect civilian aircraft flying above war zones or during periods of heightened tension.

Amid concern that Iran should not lead investigations into a tragedy for which it was responsible, Ms Callamard called for the creation of an independent body to monitor air safety during conflicts.

In December, Iran allocated $150,000 for the families of each of the crash victims. Officials also said they will bring to justice those responsible for downing flight PS752 near Imam Khomeini Airport on the outskirts of Tehran.

In a preliminary report in July, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation blamed a faulty radar system and poor communication between the air defence operator and his commanders for the downing of the plane.

Tehran's mission to the UN did not immediately answer The National's request for comment.