A man who lost his wife in Iran’s January 8 downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet says he fled the country after being pressured by authorities for criticizing the way the government handled the tragedy.
Javad Soleimani’s wife, Elnaz Nabiyi, was among 176 people killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) missile attack against the civilian airliner.
He says he was summoned by Iranian intelligence agents for “insulting” state officials.
“I decided to leave the country as soon as possible because I wasn’t the person to go to their office and apologize for my criticism, so I decided to leave Iran immediately and be the voice of the victims and their families,” Soleimani said in a January 30 interview with Canada’s CBC News Network.
Soleimani, a postgraduate student at the Alberta School of Business in Canada, says Iranian authorities also interfered in his wife’s funeral to prevent potential protests.
“They didn’t let us have our own funeral. They controlled everything because they were afraid of any protest against the government," Soleimani said, adding that his family tolerated the pressure “because our first priority was to bury my wife.”
The IRGC admitted three days after the tragedy that it had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, saying the incident was the result of a “human mistake.” Iran says an investigation has been launched and that arrests have been made.
But so far, no official has resigned over the tragedy -- which occurred just hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq as retaliation for the January 3 assassination of the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in a U.S. air strike.
Tehran’s admission after three days of persistent denials spawned protests in the Iranian capital and other cities, with demonstrators calling for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Javad Soleimani says senior officials, including Khamenei, should be held responsible for the crash. He says many Iranians were upset that Khamenei did not personally apologize for the loss of innocent lives.
“When you kill someone intentionally or unintentionally, the first thing to do is to say, ‘I apologize.’ But [Khamenei] didn’t say it, and he made people in Iran angry and more upset,” Soleimani told CBC News.
He says he also was upset that Iranian authorities referred to his wife as a “martyr.”
“They said the victims are martyrs and they wrote down congratulations,” he complained. “It was terrible.”
Alireza Ghandchi, whose wife, daughter, and son were killed in the plane crash, said those responsible should face justice.
“We would not accept it if [authorities] find an individual and say he mistakenly pushed the button” in order to end the case, Ghandchi said in a January 10 interview with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
“It’s my right to know [who was responsible] and ask for them to be put on trial," Ghandchi said.
Ghandchi said regime agents were present at his family’s funeral at Tehran’s Behesht Zahra Cemetery.
He said authorities have neither pressured his family nor provided any support.
“The government didn’t give us any support, except for using the term ‘martyr’ and creating somewhat better conditions for us during the burial. That is all,” he said.
Ghandchi said the term “martyr,” which is used in Iran to describe soldiers killed during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, should not be used when referring to the victims of the plane downing.
“The term martyr is used for people who are [killed] in a war in conditions when there’s an enemy. But it’s not correct to use it when referring to my children, who were returning [to Canada] from their trip,” he said.
Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and daughter in the plane crash, said officials at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport harassed the relatives of victims when they left Iran to attend memorial services in Canada.
"Let the family members leave to attend the funerals with ease. It is none of your business if Canada has easily issued entry visas within hours for the relatives," Esmaeilion said on Facebook on January 27.
Esmaeilion did not provide more details about why he thinks relatives of the victims are being harassed.
Other reports suggest some relatives of victims were told by authorities not to speak to Farsi-language media based outside the country but were encouraged to speak to Iran’s tightly controlled media.
“They said, ‘Come and talk to our own media, not to the anti-regime media,’” one mother who lost her son in the tragedy told the news site Iranwire.com on January 15.
“I said, ‘You want me to say that it was America’s fault? You will never hear me whitewash [this for] you’.”
Khamenei on January 17 accused Iran’s “enemies” of using the Ukrainian airline tragedy to question the Islamic republic and the IRGC, which he said "maintained the security" of Iran.
In his first public remarks about the incident, Khamenei said on January 17 that the downing of the Ukrainian plane was a “bitter accident” that "burned through our heart."