Meet the Dentist and GTA Author Who’s Organizing Global Freedom Rallies in Iran
‘Every Iranian has suffered under this regime’: Meet the dentist and GTA author who organizes global rallies for freedom in Iran
Hamed Esmaeilion’s wife and daughter died when the Iranian military shot down flight PS752. Now he’s leading a wave of protests as Iranian-Canadians demand justice for the regime’s crimes
For Hamed Esmaeilion, the last two and a half years have been an epic struggle. Born in Iran, Esmaeilion is an award-winning dentist and author who immigrated to Canada with his family in 2010, settling in Newmarket. He lost his wife and daughter in January 2020 when Ukraine Airlines flight PS752 was shot down by the Iranian military, killing all 176 people on board. As if that tragedy weren’t enough, it was quickly overshadowed by Covid, which stalled investigations into the case and left the bereaved alone with their grief. The pandemic prevented Esmaeilion from reuniting in person with the families of the other victims, all of whom were suffering terribly. In those early days, he says, “I just wanted to die.”
Since then, Esmaeilion has grown stronger by meeting the other families online and through their common desire to seek justice for their loved ones. They created the Association of the Families of the Victims of Flight PS752, which represents 139 families and of which Esmaeilion is the spokesperson. This week, Esmaeilion helped Iranian-Canadian communities across the country coordinate rallies for freedom and democracy in Iran. He also participated in the organization of rallies around the world. The protests were sparked after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in Iran following her arrest for violating the repressive regime’s dress code.
After the tragedy that struck your family and the pandemic that followed, how did you find hope and community?
Right after Flight PS752 went down Covid hit the world so we didn’t have a chance to physically congregate. We were meeting online and crying all the time, and we couldn’t even kiss. We could not organize demonstrations or rallies. We formed an association in Canada and registered it as a Canadian non-profit organization. We wanted to keep the memories of our loved ones alive and help the families of the victims. But the main goals were truth and justice.
What have you done to pursue these goals?
We had 80 meetings with federal officials in Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Ukraine and the United States. We had over 216 meetings with aviation experts, military experts and legal experts. This includes the RCMP, the Transportation and Security Board of Canada and the International Civil Aviation Organization. We wrote over 300 letters to different entities during four letter campaigns. And we organized demonstrations in Montreal; on Parliament Hill, Ottawa; and in Toronto. Recently, we were part of the organizing committee of the freedom for iran rally on saturday. Tens of thousands of Canadians gathered in at least 14 cities across the country.
Fifty thousand people took part in Saturday’s demonstration in Toronto. How does it feel to have so many people showing up?
I was shocked. We were prepared for 10,000 people, but over 50,000 people came. I remember being in the middle of the protest and thinking, “Where is the end of the rally? And I couldn’t see it. Everyone came to us, the families of PS752, they supported us, cried with us. They were talking to us. I am grateful to all Iranian Canadians. They have never forgotten us, the families of the victims of Flight PS752. They are probably the only ones who have not forgotten us. We gather to protest together against the Iranian regime. It is a peaceful demonstration. We want to protest against every crime that the regime has committed, including the attack on PS752. And that support has been so valuable to us. We did not receive the support of the Canadian authorities who had to act on our case.
So these protests are very personal to you.
Yes. Even before this happened to me and my family, I was a human rights defender. My books – contemporary fiction depicting the realities of post-revolution Islamic society and politics – are banned in Iran. I’ve been blacklisted since 2014 as an author. This is why I did not travel with my wife and daughter when they visited the country in 2020. I was persecuted the last time I returned, to visit my father-in-law, who was dying, in 2014. Officials took my passport at Tehran airport. I was interrogated twice by the police – once when my stepfather died. And this regime has been cruel to Iranian women for the past 43 years. So after Mahsa Amini died in police custody, if you look at her grave, someone wrote, “Mahsa Amini, you are not dead. Your name will be a code.
If this regime has been cruel for decades, what do you think is triggering this wave of protest right now? And why are these protests so much bigger than the previous ones?
It all started with the death of Mahsa Amini. The younger generation fighting for freedom in the country is using social media to organize. When we saw them protesting, we couldn’t keep quiet here outside Iran because we were suffering from the same pain. All Iranians have suffered under this regime, some more than me, some less than me. But everyone was affected. People are tired of the situation. They can’t deal with all of this. They have endured heavy sanctions and inflation, and a pandemic that has been very hard on Iran. They are suffering, and it is because of an ideology that has no respect for human life. The regime showed it with PS752, and it showed it through other crimes against the younger generation.
Of the 176 people on board flight PS752, 85 were Canadian. The others were Iranian, Swedish, Afghan, British and German, and the 11 crew members were Ukrainians. Ukraine is the only country to have opened a criminal investigation, and this has been hampered by the war. The RCMP said they would help Ukraine, but the process has been slow. Where does this take you and other families seeking justice?
I’m very disappointed, honestly, because we’ve done everything survivors can do. All we got from the regime was insults, discrimination and lies. The international community and the affected countries entrusted them with all the investigations. Ukraine was the only hope we had for a criminal investigation. But, with the war, that stopped. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada did not investigate. The RCMP left. He did a few interviews with families, but he never did any police or detective work, and he did not open a criminal file. The Justice Department also said it could not recommend a criminal case be opened. It is the second worst terrorist attack against Canadians. The worst was Air India Flight 182 in 1985, and this is the second worst. Eighty-five Canadians were killed and 138 of the passengers were heading for Canada.
What reasons did the RCMP give for not opening a criminal investigation?
The RCMP said they did not have access to evidence or witnesses. Many witnesses and informants called us, and we shared this information with the RCMP. I posted on social media calling on anyone with information about the PS752 to come forward. I received a phone call from the RCMP about half an hour later. They said, “We are not responsible for the evidence you collect. You are alone to do it. And we were alone. We released a report in November 2021. It was the first time in aviation history that the families of the victims took on the burden of writing an investigation report. No other organization did the work for us. In addition, the Canadian government says it has intelligence. But the other families and I, as the main stakeholders, have no idea what this intelligence is. I have spoken to many people in our government. They say there will be access to this information, but not in our lifetime. Why? I am the one who lost my wife and my daughter.
Where does this take you?
In complete darkness. This is why I protest. Our families believe that the only way to get justice for our loved ones and to know the truth about what happened is to return to Iran, where the evidence is, and have a trial in a free Iran there. ‘coming.
What do you hope for Iran, politically?
I go with what people want. There are many opposition leaders outside the country and inside the country too, most of them in prison I think. But we have to go to the people and let them vote for whoever they want. I am an ordinary person who will vote for what I would like to see in the future of Iran.
What would you like to see from the Canadian government at this point?
Immediately submit case PS752 to the International Civil Aviation Organization. The government says it is working on it, but there is no timetable, no roadmap. Whatever happens, these families that I represent, we are fighters. I think the Islamic Republic of Iran, by shooting down a plane and committing other crimes, just created more fighters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.