“Every Iranian has suffered under this regime”: Meet the GTA dentist and author organizing global freedom rallies for Iran

“Every Iranian has suffered under this regime”: Meet the GTA dentist and author organizing global freedom rallies for Iran

Hamed Esmaeilion’s wife and daughter were killed when the Iranian military shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. Now he’s leading a groundswell of protests seeking justice for the regime’s crimes

Photograph by Babak Payami

For Hamed Esmaeilion, the past two and a half years have been an epic struggle. Born in Iran, Esmaeilion is a dentist and award-winning 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 eclipsed by Covid, which stalled investigations into the matter and left the bereaved alone with their grief. The pandemic prevented Esmaeilion from gathering 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.”

Esmaeilion has since gained strength from meeting with the other families online and from their shared drive to seek justice for their loved ones. They created the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, which represents 139 families and for which Esmaeilion is the spokesperson. This week, Esmaeilion helped Iranian Canadian communities across the country coordinate rallies for freedom and democracy in Iran. He has also helped organize rallies around the world. The protests were ignited after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died 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 soon followed, how did you find hope and community?
Right after the downing of Flight PS752, Covid hit the world, so we had no chance to gather physically. We would meet online and be crying the whole time, and we could not even hug one another. We couldn’t hold protests 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 did you do to pursue those goals?
We have had 80 meetings with federal officials in Canada, the UK, Sweden, Ukraine and the United States. We have had more than 216 meetings with aviation experts, military experts and legal experts. This includes the RCMP, the Transportation and Safety Board of Canada and the International Civil Aviation Organization. We have written more than 300 letters to different entities over the course of four letter-writing campaigns. And we have organized protests in Montreal; on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa; and in Toronto. Recently, we were part of the organizing committee for the Freedom Rally for Iran on Saturday. Tens of thousands of Canadians rallied in at least 14 cities across the country.

Fifty thousand people attended Saturday’s protest in Toronto. How did it feel to have so many people show up?
I was shocked. We were prepared for 10,000 people, but then more than 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 was coming up to us, the families of PS752, they were supporting us, crying with us. They were talking to us. I’m grateful to all Iranian Canadians. They never forgot us families of the victims of Flight PS752. They are probably the only ones who didn’t forget us. We are coming together to protest the Iranian regime together. It’s a peaceful protest. We want to protest every single crime that the regime has committed, including the downing of PS752. And this support was so valuable for us. We didn’t get support from the Canadian authorities who had to act for our case.

Hamed Esmaeilion and fellow protesters at the Freedom Rally for Iran in Toronto Photograph by Sina Jamshidiat

So these protests are very personal for you.
Yes. Even before this happened to me and my family, I was an advocate for human rights. My books—contemporary fiction depicting the realities of post–Islamic Revolution society and politics—are banned in Iran. I have been on a blacklist since 2014 as an author. That’s why I didn’t travel with my wife and daughter when they visited the country in 2020. I was persecuted the last time I went back, to visit my father-in-law, who was dying, in 2014. Officials took my passport at the airport in Tehran. I was interrogated twice by police—once while my father-in-law passed away. And this regime has been cruel to the women of Iran for the past 43 years. So, after Mahsa Amini died in police custody, if you look at her grave, somebody wrote, “Mahsa Amini, you didn’t die. Your name will be a code.”

If this regime has been cruel for decades, what do you think is triggering this groundswell of protest right now? And why are these protests so much bigger than previous ones?
It started with the death of Mahsa Amini. The young generation that fights for freedom within the country is using social media to organize. When we saw them protesting, we couldn’t be silent here, outside of Iran, because we suffered the same pain. Every Iranian has suffered under this regime—some more than me, some less than me. But everybody has been affected. People are tired of the situation. They can’t cope with all this. They have endured heavy sanctions and inflation, plus a pandemic that was very hard on Iran. They are suffering, and it’s because of an ideology that doesn’t have any respect for human life. The regime showed that with PS752, and it has shown that through other crimes against the younger generation.

Of the 176 people on Flight PS752, 85 were Canadian. The others were Iranian, Swedish, Afghan, British and German, and the 11 crew members were Ukrainian. Ukraine is the only country that opened a criminal investigation, and it has been hindered by the war. The RCMP said it would assist Ukraine, but the process has been slow. Where does this leave you and the other families seeking justice?
I’m very disappointed, honestly, because we have done everything survivors can do. All we’ve got from the regime has been insults and discrimination and lies. The international community and the affected countries handed over all the investigations to them. Ukraine was the only hope that we had for a criminal investigation. But, with the war, that stopped. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada didn’t do any investigation. The RCMP walked away. It did some interviews with families, but it never did any policing work or detective work, and it didn’t open a criminal case. The Department of Justice also said it couldn’t recommend opening a criminal case. This 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 to Canada.

What reasons did the RCMP give for not opening a criminal investigation?
The RCMP said it had no access to the evidence or the witnesses. We have had a lot of witnesses and informants calling us, and we shared that information with the RCMP. I posted on social media calling for anyone with information about PS752 to please come forward. I got a phone call from the RCMP about half an hour later. They said, “We aren’t responsible for any evidence you collect. You are on your own to do that.” And we were on our own. We published a report in November 2021. It was the first time in the history of aviation that the families of victims took on the burden of writing an investigative report. No other organization did the work for us. Also, the Canadian government says that it has intelligence. But the other families and I, as the biggest stakeholders, have no clue what this intelligence is. I have spoken to a lot of people in our government. They say that there will be access to this information, but not during our lifetimes. Why? I’m the one who lost my wife and my daughter.

Protesters at the Freedom Rally for Iran in Toronto Photograph by Sina Jamshidiat

Where does that leave you?
In complete darkness. That’s why I’m protesting. Our families think the only way to get justice for our loved ones and to know the truth of what happened is to go back to Iran, where the evidence is, and have a trial in a free Iran in the future.

What are you hoping for Iran, politically?
I go with what people want. There are lots of opposition leaders outside of the country and inside the country too, most of them in prison, I think. But we must go to the people and let them vote for whom they want. I’m an ordinary person who will vote for what I’d like to see in the future of Iran.

What would you like to see from the Canadian government at this point?
Submit the PS752 case to the International Civil Aviation Organization right away. The government says it’s working on it, but there’s no time frame, no road map. Whatever happens, these families I represent, we are fighters. I think the Islamic Republic of Iran, by shooting down an airplane and committing other crimes, just created more fighters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.