Canada’s quest for compensation from Iran for shooting down a Ukrainian airliner is fraught with obstacles because Tehran’s lead investigator is a mass executioner who belongs in prison, says a former Canadian justice minister.
“A person, who in fact should himself be in prison, is now making the determination of what would be a just and transparent inquiry,” Irwin Cotler said in an interview.
The lawyer and longtime advocate for human rights, who served as justice minister under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, represents several current and former Iranian prisoners.
Iran has appointed its chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, to oversee the investigation of the Jan. 8 shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. The plane was hit by two Iranian missiles shortly after takeoff from Tehran airport, killing all 176 on board, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.
Cotler said Raisi has escaped justice himself because he was complicit in the mass execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
Raisi was named as a conspirator in the killings two decades later by another Iranian politician but he is not known to have spoken publicly about the allegations. The killings targeted Iranian opposition figures at the end of its eight-year war with Iraq.
In the intervening decades, Raisi has risen through Iran’s judicial ranks, working as a prosecutor during which time he presided over an escalating number of executions that made Iran the world leader on that front, said Cotler.
The Trudeau government has appointed another ex-Liberal cabinet minister, Ralph Goodale, to be its special envoy on the Ukraine crash as it grapples with the COVID-19 crisis.
Iran promised to turn over the plane’s flight recorders to Ukraine during a March 11 video conference meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, but that has yet to happen.
A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Canada continues to push Iran to release them in the ongoing international effort to find “transparency, accountability, justice and closure” for the families of those who died in the crash.
Cotler said Goodale remains a “good friend” and that he is as good a bet as any to getting answers out of the Iranians on the crash – including prying free the black boxes. But he faces formidable odds.
“Iran has a pattern in negotiations to just wait you out, until the other side will cede to their demands or the issue goes away,” said Cotler.
“They are very good at procrastination and withholding information.”
Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, the British high commissioner to Canada, said the fact that Iran was hit hard by COVID-19 may have delayed their response. But Britain, Canada, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Sweden – the countries that lost citizens in the crash – will continue to press for answers.
“The most important thing is those black boxes are looked at, and investigated by an organization that is accredited and in accordance with the rules ICAO has set down,” she said.
“We will continue to support them to get justice for the victims, eventually compensation, but certainly to find out what happened on that awful day.”
Cotler said his long association with trying to help free dissident Iranians offers him a “looking glass” into the obstacles that Canada and the four other countries pushing for answers on Flight 752 now face.
After leaving politics in 2015, he founded the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and has continued working as the lawyer for political prisoners in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.
Though Iran deserves credit for recently releasing scores of prisoners because its overcrowded prisons and jails are breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus, Cotler said political prisoners are not among then.
Female political prisoners, he said, are also being kept behind bars, and are particularly vulnerable.
The centre is calling for the release two female prisoners, both Cotler’s clients.
He said the physicist and human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, was recently beaten by the warden of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and is facing additional threats of sexual abuse.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is a celebrated human rights lawyer who has been called the “Mandela of Iran.” Cotler said she’s spoken out for female inmates, juveniles, journalists, and has been a death penalty abolitionist. A year ago, she was imprisoned and given a sentence of close to 40 years and more than 140 lashes.
For a woman in her mid-50s, Cotler calls that a death sentence.
Cotler represented Sotoudeh in 2010 when he was a sitting in MP, and she was quickly released from an Iran jail back then after York University gave her an honorary doctorate.
Queen’s University planned to bestow a similar honour on Sotoudeh next month, he said, but that commencement ceremony is on hold because of the pandemic.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.