Photograph: Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images
Many high-level Iranian officials should be charged the downing of a Ukrainian commercial airliner in January 2020, said a UN human rights expert, describing the murder of the 176 people on board as a “deep and grave indictment” of the country’s civil and military authorities.
Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, delivered a 45 page letter to the Iranian government, which was made public on Tuesday, outlining its findings from a six-month investigation into the disaster, and complaining about the lack of Iranian cooperation, which left many of its questions unanswered.
Callamard particularly strongly condemned the treatment of the Tehran government of the families of the victims, who she said were harassed and threatened, denied return of remains and personal effects and were forced to accompany an officially organized funeral for the “martyrs”.
Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 was beaten down by an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air defense missile battery shortly after take off from Tehran International Airport, at a time of high tension, five days after a U.S. drone killed a commander of the IRGC, Qassem Suleimani.
The plane was bound for Kiev but had 55 citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada on board. After several days denying responsibility, Tehran said the Boeing 737-800 was mistakenly shot down by an air defense crew who mistook it for an incoming US missile.
“The inconsistencies in the official explanations seem designed to create a maximum of confusion and a minimum of clarity. They seem deceived and baffled, ”Callamard said in the letter, which was sent to Tehran 60 days ago with a series of questions, but has yet to be answered.
The Iranian mission to the UN did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday evening.
“At best what we have here is a succession of extraordinarily incompetent actions … so much so that they would in my opinion, in criminal court, be described as criminal and reckless,” Callamard told The Guardian.
She added that the crash of the plane was a “deep and grave indictment of Iran, both military and civilian authorities, in terms of violations of their human rights obligations.”
The official Iranian account details a series of technical failures and human error that led to the tragedy, but Callamard said they had just raised other questions that Tehran had not answered.
For example, the official record said the mobile missile unit that fired the two Russian-made Tor missiles that downed the airliner had not been properly calibrated, so radar systems showed the aircraft as entering rather than exiting.
Callamard said she was not given any explanation as to why this calibration error occurred, why it was not detected or why it led to the missile fire. It was also unclear why the crew had not followed standard operating procedures that would have prevented the launch, why the airport had not been closed at a time of high tension, and why the investigation had been botched. The the scene of the accident was looted and bulldozed before the arrival of international inspectors.
There have been conflicting reports on the arrest and prosecution of the missile crew, but Callamard said: “In terms of accountability, unfortunately we cannot expect Iran to charge those at the bottom. top or even in the middle of the chain of command, and there are a lot of them. senior officials who should be charged. “
There was no evidence, she added, that Iran had made the fundamental changes needed to give the rest of the world assurances that the same mistakes would not happen again.
Callamard’s letter castigates the Iranian government for the treatment of bereaved families. In many cases, personal items went missing after the accident site and luggage were looted.
Related: A visual guide to the plane crash in Iran
“Iranian officials have sought to force families to publicly declare their support for the government or risk the non-return of the remains of their relatives,” the letter said. “Many families were also reportedly denied private funerals. The victims were declared deceased “martyrs” for their country. As a result, the funeral was tightly controlled.
The inscription “Congratulations on your martyrdom” was placed on the coffins of the victims against the wishes of the families, the letter added.
Families in Iran and Canada, he said, had received death threats for criticizing Iran.
Callamard told The Guardian that the treatment of grieving families was “cynical, cruel and criminal”.
She said she hoped international efforts, especially by Canada and Ukraine, would not be bought off or held hostage by the desire to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Callamard said: “In no case should the search for justice for PS752 be hampered by the equally important search for a nuclear deal.”