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Rescue workers search the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020.Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

Iran likely chose to carry out an act of terrorism when it fired two deadly missiles into a jumbo jet carrying 176 people out of Tehran in January, 2020, and the country now owes damages to a group of relatives seeking justice in Ontario Superior Court, according to a new ruling.

In a written decision released Thursday, Justice Edward Belobaba found that “on a balance of probabilities,” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – and a host of other defendants, including some top army commanders, as well as the state itself and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – committed intentional terrorism by bringing down Flight 752. Everyone was killed on the flight bound for Kyiv on the morning of Jan. 8, 2020, with more than half the passengers – 138 – en route home to Canada or coming here to visit.

Iran did not defend itself in court and the default judgment now sets the stage for a ruling this summer on the extent of damages to be awarded in the civil suit. Calls and an e-mail to the office in Washington that handles consular affairs for Iranians in Canada were not immediately answered Thursday.

When they first sued, the plaintiffs sought at least $1.5-billion in compensation.

Foreign states are not typically within the jurisdiction of Canadian courts, but a 2012 Canadian law limited that immunity for countries listed as “foreign state supporters of terrorism,” including Iran. Canada does not have formal diplomatic relations with Iran, and claiming damages will likely be lengthy and complex, but it has been done before.

Jonah Arnold, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, has represented clients in other lawsuits against Iran, including a 2017 decision that led to the seizure of some Iranian assets in Canada. He said the country still has other assets in Canada and abroad that the plaintiffs can target.

“Will it be a challenge? Perhaps,” he told The Globe and Mail Thursday evening.

The Iranian government has said the jet’s downing was a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

The ruling notes it took several days before the country’s armed forces publicly admitted responsibility for the crash, chalking it up to a defence system operator mistaking the jet for a cruise missile. The decision states that Iranian media had also reported the U.S. Army might have used electronic warfare to confuse the defence system to see the Boeing 737-800 airplane as a U.S. cruise missile.

“The plaintiffs have established on a balance of probabilities that the missiles were launched intentionally and during a time in which there was no armed conflict,” Justice Belobaba wrote.

Earlier this year, Canada’s air-safety investigator said Iranian officials failed to provide evidence that Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by mistake, leaving key questions unanswered as Iran’s military effectively investigated itself.

The plaintiffs include Merzhad Zarei, who lost his 18-year-old son, Arad; Shahin Moghaddam, whose wife, Shakiba, and son, Rossitin, died; and Ali Gorji, whose niece, Poureh, and her new husband, Arash, were also on the flight. The fourth plaintiff is a refugee claimant and was allowed by the judge to remain anonymous after she and her family were threatened by Iranian officials to keep silent about the disaster and not talk to media or engage in public protests.

Mr. Moghaddam, who lost his wife Shakiba and their 10-year-old Rossitin, said the ruling made him “somehow happy and somehow sad.”

“It was the best decision which we could reach,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

He said for many families who lost their loved ones in the plane crash, they are not looking for compensation, but justice.

He noted the decision is putting on pressure on Canada because it has not yet taken the most concrete action.

“Still, there is a long way to go. We have to wait and see what is the next step from the Government of Canada.”

“I have reviewed the confidential affidavit material. Jane Doe has a genuine and credible fear of reprisal against herself here in Canada and her family still in Iran,” Justice Belobaba wrote.

With a report from Xiao Xu and The Canadian Press

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