A moral leader emerges for Iranian protesters outside Iran

Author and activist Hamed Esmaeilion speaks at a rally organized by the Women Life Freedom Collective in solidarity with women and protesters in Iran on Oct. 22 in Berlin. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
Author and activist Hamed Esmaeilion speaks at a rally organized by the Women Life Freedom Collective in solidarity with women and protesters in Iran on Oct. 22 in Berlin. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

When I first met Iranian author and activist Hamed Esmaeilion, one morning this past October in California, I was already well aware of his story.

On Jan. 8, 2020, Esmaeilion’s wife, Parisa, and only child, 9-year-old Reera, were killed when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport. The mother and daughter were returning to Canada after visiting family in Iran over the winter holidays. Esmaeilion, a dentist and writer whose novels critical of the Islamic republic were growing increasingly popular inside and outside Iran, had stayed behind in Toronto, knowing that if he traveled with his family, he would probably run into trouble with Iranian authorities.

After the horrific crash, Esmaeilion returned to Iran to take possession of his family’s remains for burial in Canada, overcoming threats and obstacles from Iranian authorities. In the months after his return to Toronto, Esmaeilion and relatives of others who died in the plane crash formed the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, for which he continues to serve as spokesman.

Their simple goals were justice for the dead and accountability for the perpetrators. But their efforts ran into bureaucratic roadblocks, a pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and apathy from a world desensitized by an endless diet of bad news.

Hamed Esmaeilion sits in front of a portrait of his wife and daughter, killed in Iran's shoot-down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. (Babak Payami/Courtesy of 752 Productions)
Hamed Esmaeilion sits in front of a portrait of his wife and daughter, killed in Iran's shoot-down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. (Babak Payami/Courtesy of 752 Productions)

That is, until this past September, when protests erupted in Tehran after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Among the many members of the Iranian diaspora who amplified the demands of protesters inside Iran were members of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.

Now Esmaeilion has become a leading voice outside Iran in the anti-regime movement — an essential bridge between Iranians in diaspora who want to promote a freer future for their homeland and the millions inside Iran who live under an abusive system that has long operated with impunity.

His effort to use international legal mechanisms — he has filed a lawsuit in the International Criminal Court — to bring to justice those responsible for the plane crash has become an inspiration to a society that, for more than four decades, has been unable to address grievances against the government. The redress that Esmaeilion and the families of other victims seek is quickly becoming a model that victims of previous atrocities might emulate.

Esmaeilion is also the subject of “752 Is Not a Number”, a new documentary about his and other families’ efforts to get answers. The film, which launches on iTunes on Jan. 6, is visual testimony to their resilience in the face of unspeakable trauma.

Since our first meeting in California, Esmaeilion and I have had several encounters at other events in which we were both participating, and I’ve asked him many questions about the evolving movement in Iran and his efforts to support it. Here are questions I’ve put to Esmaeilion in recent weeks, and his answers, edited for brevity and clarity.

Jason Rezaian: Many people opposed to the regime in Iran talk about revenge, but that’s never been your message. Why is it so important to take a principled and legal-minded approach in your quest for justice?

Hamed Esmaeilion: I’ve thought about revenge, too. Every victim of this criminal regime does. But my way, the way I’ve convinced myself to pursue, and the Association of Families pursued, was through the courts. Because if you take your revenge, the full truth never gets revealed.

And for me, the whole society, for Iranians and for Canadians, for everybody, I think it’s important to understand what really happened. So if we were to take our revenge on the military commanders or on Ali Khamenei, there would be missing moments that would still have to be examined in court. They have to face the families of the victims of this crime. They have to face that humiliation in public because they are criminals, but they think they are heroes.

Without impartial courts operating under the rule of law, the truth cannot be revealed, and revealing the truth will provide a way for society to heal and to understand how to stop a crime like this and this kind of bloodshed from happening again, and to stop the cycle of violence we’ve had following the [1979] revolution.

JR: What would justice and accountability look like to you? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but to me your sense of justice isn’t the same as the Islamic republic’s. I don’t think you want to hang anybody.

HE: We, the majority of Iranians, are not like them and never have been. After the revolution in 1979, everyone remembers the violence that happened, and the wave of violence that has continued for four decades. That is the nature of the ideology they follow.

And now you see the difference with the civil movement we’re witnessing today. For example, the only way I could fight was with words and writing. We write letters, we have meetings, we protest. This is the way we fight. It’s very peaceful, because we are right. I know that in an ideal world, all the perpetrators of this crime — from the supreme leader to the operator of the weapon that shot the plane down — should have been arrested. And this is what I’m asking for, honestly. After three years, this is still my demand.

JR: Are you hopeful that will happen?

HE: On Sept. 14, we sued in the International Criminal Court, saying [certain] individuals are responsible for the downing of the plane and demanding they be prosecuted. Unfortunately, until now none of the affected governments [of the victims] have supported this effort in writing.

So when I see this revolution happening in Iran, it gives me more hope that the right place for this kind of court would be in Tehran — an impartial court in Tehran. In my opinion, it resonates like Nuremberg.

JR: You’ve been traveling around the world giving speeches, and many Iranians are looking to you as a leader, some perhaps trying to push you into a leadership role. What do you personally see your role as now?

HE: Yeah, it’s a very difficult question. You know that on a day like this, on a Friday, especially, in a few hours I would leave my workplace, go home and drink coffee with my wife. That’s what we wanted to do every Friday. But this crime has put me in a very difficult position. I had to come forward. And you — you and the rest of the community members — you witness three years of fighting [for justice]. And when this uprising happened in Iran, I noticed, okay, this is a revolution, and this can help everybody to get to freedom and justice. So that’s why I didn’t stay silent. And we tried to organize rallies and all that.

JR: What do you see as your role in the future?

HE: The young people in Iran are the real leaders of this revolution, and there are activists in Iran in prison who deserve to be out leading this movement.

I just want to play the same role that I have played the last three years or in recent weeks. Just echo the voices of the Iranian people for now and just engage media and politicians to get them to listen to what people are saying in Iran and see where it goes. The revolutions we read about in history books don’t happen overnight. We all know things can happen so quickly in the Middle East. But we know that this fight is going to take longer. We have to be patient. It’s still very early.

JR: The Islamic republic has begun executing protesters. What actions can democratic governments take to prevent what could quickly become a new reign of terror?

HE: Some European members of parliament are stepping forward as legal representatives for prisoners in Iran to try to stop these executions. We know that the Islamic Republic of Iran has no limits. They are capable of any kind of crime imaginable. But I’m sure there are ways for the Western governments to pressure them. For three months we have asked the [Group of Seven] and other Western countries to expel the ambassadors of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This would be a very strong message to the Islamic regime so they understand that this pressure is serious and human rights really matter. Putting the [Revolutionary Guard] on the list of terrorist organizations would be a good gesture, too.

JR: Are Iranians in diaspora helping the movement inside the country? What else could they be doing?

HE: Iranian people in diaspora are writing to the politicians. Taking part in protests. Every week where I reside in Toronto, there have been protests and rallies with thousands and thousands of people. On Oct. 1, in more than 150 cities, people came to the streets. On Oct. 1 in Berlin, there was a massive demonstration. All of these have a good impact on the media and on the politicians to see the real Iran, to see the real Iranians and their demands, to listen to what they say.

What more can be done? That’s a very good question. [We] have to listen to exactly what the Iranian people, the Iranian young generation are saying and try to echo that.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has tried its best to stop this kind of communication between activists inside and outside of the country, but we have to find ways to make these connections stronger, and get the direction from them.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.

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