With the two-year anniversary of the destruction of Flight PS752 coming up, the victims’ families say the RCMP is not sharing evidence quickly enough with Ukraine — the only country conducting a criminal investigation into the tragedy.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired two surface-to-air missiles at the Ukraine International Airlines Flight on Jan. 8, 2020, shortly after takeoff in Tehran. All 176 people onboard died. Most had ties to Canada.
The RCMP resisted calls to open its own criminal investigation. Instead, the police force opted to assist Ukraine’s efforts.
More than 120 RCMP members have been involved in the effort and have conducted 58 interviews, the RCMP told CBC News.
But Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing victims’ families in Canada, says Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office and government have told him that “cooperation has not been great.”
Esmaeilion said Ukrainian officials told him that his testimony was not shared by the RCMP.
“I have had several meetings with the RCMP and all of them were recorded, so they should have been passed to Ukraine, but they were not,” he said.
Esmaeilion’s nine-year-old daughter and wife were among the Canadian victims. He travelled to Ukraine in the fall and met with Ukraine’s prosecutor general and government officials. Esmaeilion said the officials told him the RCMP still hasn’t passed on his testimony, recorded almost a year earlier.
“It’s not transparent for us and it’s very bureaucratic and very slow,” said Esmaeilion of the RCMP’s process.
In a letter to the victims’ families, obtained by CBC News, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki conceded that the “pace” of transferring information to Ukraine has been “slow.”
Lucki wrote that “complex investigations can take years.” She also assured the families in the letter that an “information flow is happening” and that the RCMP provided “some evidence” to Ukraine in early July. The RCMP said it also sent information prior to that date.
“… This is a multi-jurisdictional, multilingual investigation with significant information that needs to be collected, reviewed, corroborated, analyzed and assessed for risk before it can be shared,” Lucki wrote in the letter to families on July 7.
RCMP investigates threats to families
The RCMP is also investigating reports of physical threats, harassment and intimidation directed against family members. In its latest annual report, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) wrote that those acts of intimidation and threats are the work of “threat actors linked to proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“This activity may constitute foreign interference,” said the report.
In her letter, Lucki said keeping families safe is her investigators’ top priority.
“It is possible for interview statements to contain comments that could be used to harm individuals in Canada or abroad if they are not protected and disclosed in an appropriate manner,” said the RCMP in a media statement.
The RCMP said it wants to see justice for families and must follow the law to make sure the information it gathers is admissible in court.
Families want to talk to Ukraine directly
Victims’ families have been asking the RCMP and Canadian government for the past year to be allowed to speak directly to Ukrainian investigators.
In her letter, Lucki said she agrees the RCMP could do more to facilitate conversations between Ukrainian authorities and the families. She said she committed on June 15 to helping Ukrainian investigators come to Canada.
More than six months later, that promise has not yet been fulfilled.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office told CBC News in a media statement that since Canada has the second-largest group of victims, it did “initiate” the idea of having Ukrainian representatives come to Canada.
“A decision by the Canadian side is currently awaited,” said the prosecutor general’s office, adding that the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic may have played a role in the delay.
“The Prosecutor General’s Office is grateful to the competent authorities of Canada for close cooperation and emphasizes that they are the largest partner in the investigation,” says a statement sent to CBC News.
The RCMP said it supports the idea of bringing Ukrainian investigators to Canada.
Lucki also promised this summer to send RCMP investigators back to Ukraine. That hasn’t happened yet; the RCMP says it plans on doing so once the “pandemic situation permits.”
‘Ukraine is the only chance’
It’s disappointing news for victims’ families, said Esmaeilion.
“Ukraine is the only chance,” he said. “Ukraine is the only country who has jurisdiction and has opened a criminal case. So we want to share this evidence with Ukraine. We want it to have RCMP in the middle, helping us. But if that doesn’t happen, we need to go directly to Ukraine.”
Esmaeilion said the families want in-person meetings with Ukrainian investigators because the information they want to share is sensitive. Esmaeilion said that, for example, they have contact information for people who could be informants — people the RCMP wouldn’t talk to because they’re outside of Canada.
The families also have a report from a former Toronto police homicide investigator suggesting that someone tampered with victims’ phones and laptops recovered from the crash scene. Esmaeilion said the RCMP told him it didn’t have the proper equipment to analyze it.
The families also say DNA testing in the U.K. and Canada shows that three of the repatriated remains contained unidentified human tissue belonging to someone else. The families claim this was due to neglect on the part of Iranian authorities who sent the remains. The RCMP helped to establish DNA profiles for family members of seven Canadian victims.
Ukraine not a Five Eyes intelligence ally
Pierre Yves Bourduas, a former RCMP deputy commissioner, said there could also be national security considerations at play.
He said it’s more complex for the RCMP to share information with Ukraine because it’s not part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. He said countries in the alliance, like the U.S. and U.K., already have an established system for sharing confidential information.
“The distance and the fact these Ukrainian authorities do not have a long established relationship with Canadian authorities makes this case different,” said Bourduas, who now heads P-Y Public Safety Management.
The RCMP is acting on a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty request from Ukraine which involves making sure the evidence collected is presented in the right format to that country’s authorities.
The RCMP told CBC News that it has a protocol for information-sharing with other countries and will continue to transfer evidence and statements to Ukraine as soon as it’s ready. The RCMP said it was not in a position to disclose how much information has been shared and how often.
Bourdas said the protocol also limits the information the RCMP can share with victims’ family members.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada continues to “demand justice and accountability” for the families.
Canada, along with Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom, issued a notice of claim on June 3, 2021, in the hopes of triggering talks between Iran and the countries which lost citizens.
The group previously issued a joint statement saying that Iran had so far been “reluctant” to engage and warning that refusal to negotiate would result in the consideration of “other actions to resolve this matter within the framework of international law.”