Two years after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran, families of the victims are still searching for answers and seeking justice.
Among them are Iranian university professors Mohsen Asadi-Lari and his wife, Zahra Majd, who lost two of their children in the crash.
Mohammad Asadi-Lari, 23, and his 21-year-old sister, Zeynab Asadi-Lari, were on their way back to Canada, where the siblings had been studying.
"Mom, don't cry so much," Majd recalled Zeynab telling her on January 8, 2020, the day of the doomed flight. "We will see each other in less than two months."
Hours later, the Kyiv-bound plane crashed and exploded into a fireball after being hit with two surface-to-air missiles.
All 176 people on board -- passengers and Ukrainian crew -- were killed. Many of the victims were Iranians and Canadians, though several Afghans, Britons, Swedes, and some Germans were also among the dead.
After three days of denials and amid growing international pressure, the IRGC admitted to shooting down the plane "unintentionally" after misidentifying it as a threat amid heightened tensions with the United States.
Days earlier, a U.S. drone strike had killed IRGC commander General Qasem Soleimani in neighboring Iraq. Tehran's delayed claim of responsibility for the shootdown sparked angry protests in Iran and increased distrust in the clerical regime.
Hours before the tragedy, Iran had launched missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq to avenge Soleimani's killing, and Tehran's air defenses were on high alert in case of U.S. retaliation, which never came.
Iranian officials later said several people had been detained and charged over the "disastrous mistake." No senior officials were dismissed or resigned over the incident.
Two years later, the families of the victims are still seeking answers, including why Iran did not close its airspace amid the dangerous tensions with the United States. They have also expressed skepticism about Iran's version of the tragic events.
Asadi-Lari and Majd revealed on January 10 that they had recently taken the unprecedented step of filing a lawsuit against three senior security officials over the death of their children -- IRGC chief General Hossein Salami, IRGC aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, and secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani.
Majd told the Shargh daily that Salami had personally visited the couple and hailed their children as martyrs, saying their deaths prevented a deadly conflict with the United States. "He said if this had not happened, 10 million people would have been killed and that this incident prevented a war," Majd quoted Salami as saying.
An IRGC spokesman confirmed on January 11 that Salami had visited the couple. But he said Salami's comments, as recalled by Majd, were "incomplete" and "distorted."
Asadi-Lari, who is a former senior Health Ministry official, in a recent interview suggested that the IRGC deliberately shot down the plane, a claim that has been made by some of the victims' families based in Canada.
It was the first time that an insider of Iran's Islamic regime had leveled such serious allegations against the powerful IRGC. Many of the victims' families in Iran have been largely silent due to fear and state intimidation.
"We've come to the conclusion that they [used] the plane as a human shield," Asadi-Lari, who served as director-general of international affairs at the Health Ministry, told the Iranian news site Ensafnews.ir on January 8. "Maybe they wanted to hit [the plane] and blame America."
Asadi-Lari and Majd also suggested that the 10 military personnel on trial in Iran over the incident may not be the real culprits. They said the person identified as the operator of the air-defense system that downed the plane is a top expert who would not have made such a mistake.
The couple said they were determined to find the truth even while nurturing little hope for justice. "My father was put on trial 48 years ago," said Asadi-Lari, referring to the one-party state under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
"We didn't have any hope for justice from that system," Asadi-Lari told Ensafnews.ir. "But [Islamic republic officials] always talk about justice. Where is it? Is this it? Definitely not."
"We will try until our last breath to find out some truths," Majd added.
A Canadian forensic team's report last year accused Iran of incompetence and recklessness over the downing of the passenger plane. The report found that while the downing of the plane had not been premeditated, it did not absolve Iranian officials of responsibility. Iran criticized the report as "highly politicized."
'Hid The Truth'
Asadi-Lari and Majd are among dozens of victims' families who have been seeking justice for the past two years. Iran has offered to pay compensation to the families, but many have publicly rejected the offer, saying it is an attempt to close the case and escape accountability.
Afghan citizen Mohammad Mehdi Saadat, who lost his 19-year-old son, Zainul Abedin, in the crash, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that he wants those responsible for the tragedy to be brought to justice. "We are very disappointed with Iran," he said. "They hide what they have done. They hid the truth about the plane crash for three days."
The families of the victims have called for an independent investigation into the incident, with some threatening to take the case to the International Court of Justice. "The most important demand of the [victims'] families is the launch of an international investigation, a criminal investigation," Javad Soleimani, a Canadian citizen who lost his wife in the crash, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Last week, the families of the victims marked the second anniversary of the tragedy by gathering at the crash site near Tehran's airport, demanding justice for those were killed.
In videos shared on social media, they held pictures of their loved ones and called for "Justice! Truth!"
A Canadian court recently awarded $84 million to the families of six people who died in the crash. The relatives awarded compensation in the ruling announced on January 3 had filed a civil lawsuit against Iran and officials they believed were to blame for the incident.
The same court ruled in May that the destruction of the commercial plane was an intentional act of terrorism.
Canada along with Ukraine, Britain, and Sweden on January 6 announced that they were abandoning a two-year effort to negotiate compensation with Tehran, saying they had concluded that the attempts were "futile."
They said they would focus "on subsequent actions to take to resolve this matter in accordance with international law."