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Mehrzad Zarei, the father of one of the passengers killed onboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, marches during a demonstration in Ottawa on Aug. 25.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and Britain have started a process to hold Iran legally accountable for downing Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, almost three years after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot the passenger plane out of the sky.

All 176 people on board – including 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents of Canada and 53 others travelling to Canada via Kyiv – were killed on Jan. 8, 2020, when the plane was struck by a pair of Iranian surface-to-air missiles shortly after takeoff from Tehran.

The families of the victims have been fighting for justice ever since, determined to find out why the plane was shot down and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Ministers representing Canada and its three allies issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying they have “taken concrete action today to ensure that our efforts to hold Iran to account for the unlawful downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 … can progress to the dispute settlement phase.”

The countries, which make up the International Co-ordination and Response Group, formed to pursue reparations from Iran, said in the statement that they are committed to holding Iran responsible for its “multiple breaches of its international legal obligations pursuant to several treaties,” in order to ensure transparency and justice for the victims and their families. The statement says the missiles were launched “unlawfully and intentionally by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

The countries said they have requested that Iran submit to binding arbitration under an international dispute resolution process governed by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.

That convention, a treaty that was designed to protect commercial aircraft from attack, was signed in Montreal in 1971. It requires parties to punish those who commit offences involving airplanes. Canada and its allies have signed the convention, and so has Iran.

The call for binding arbitration from Canada and its allies follows years of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate reparations with Iran.

If Iran does not agree to binding arbitration within six months, the case can be referred to the International Court of Justice, according to the terms of the convention. But it’s not clear whether Iran would participate in a court proceeding.

Iran initially denied responsibility for the attack, but said days later that its Revolutionary Guard had fired the two missiles in error, after mistaking the plane for a cruise missile. Canada and its allies have dismissed Iran’s explanation and have demanded accountability.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a Twitter post on Wednesday that those who lost loved ones in the downing of the flight, also known as PS752, deserve justice.

“We have taken an important step to advance our pursuit of that justice at the international level this week and will continue to work together to hold Iran accountable for this tragedy,” she said.

Iran’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request to comment on Wednesday.

Hamed Esmaeilion, a spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, said the announcement Wednesday was an important step forward.

“It’s a clear road map for the affected countries and for the families to see justice,” he told The Globe.

Mr. Esmaeilion, who lives in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, lost his wife and nine-year-old daughter on the flight. His wife was a dentist. “We grew up together, we were college sweethearts,” he said.

He said the wait for justice has been long and painful for the victims’ families. But they came together to organize and advocate. “And now we see the result,” he said.

“Honestly we never had time for mourning. There’s a saying that says: ‘Don’t mourn, organize.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”

Mr. Esmaeilion said the families hope to see the case go to the International Court of Justice on May 28, which would be the six-month mark.

“The victims are gone, they got killed, they got murdered and they’ll never come back. But for the families, for the survivors, it’s important to know all the details about the downing of Flight PS752 … and then see that justice is served.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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