Canada brings home first plane-crash victim, pushes Iran to respect families

OTTAWA — The first body of a Canadian who died in the Tehran plane crash has come home, the country's foreign minister said Tuesday, as the government pushed Iran to respect the wishes of family members who want their loved ones buried in Canada.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne confirmed the repatriation of a Canadian killed in the crash of the Ukraine International Airlines jet near Tehran almost two weeks ago, but he offered no other details because of the family's request for privacy. The minister said other families would also be bringing their loved ones' remains back to Canada, but he did not give specifics, citing their privacy wishes.

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Champagne said a number of victims have already had their remains buried in Iran, according to the wishes of their families. The repatriation of Canadian remains has emerged as an issue because Iran does not recognize dual citizenships and claims anyone born in Iran as Iranian.

"Every time that I receive an allegation that the wishes of the family will not have been respected we are taking these allegations seriously," Champagne said in Winnipeg.

He also said Iranian authorities have assured Canada they would respect families' wishes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that by respecting the wishes of families, Iran would also be respecting the principles of Islam.

"We recognize that it is a challenge that Iran does not recognizes double citizenship, but the focus that we've had on supporting the families has been to ensure that the families' wishes are respected in regards to burials," Trudeau said Tuesday in Winnipeg after a cabinet retreat.

"Respecting the wishes of the families lines up not with a question of citizenship, but it lines up also with international laws and practice and with principles around Islam for burials."

All 176 people on Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 were killed when the it crashed outside Tehran earlier this month after being shot at by two Iranian surface-to-air missiles.

Ottawa has confirmed that included 57 Canadian citizens and 29 permanent residents of Canada.

The Canadian Press has independently confirmed at least 90 victims with ties to Canada, many of them students and professors returning after spending the December break visiting relatives in Iran.

Iran's aviation authority said Monday that the jetliner was carrying only five Canadian nationals, a number it said was based on the passports used by passengers.

That has raised concerns the bodies won't be allowed out of the country for those families wishing for burials in Canada.

Dennis Horak, Canada's last ambassador to Iran, said Trudeau may have been trying to appeal Iran's "basic humanity" by couching a request of repatriation of bodies in religious terms, but added: "Good luck with that."

"Iranians are trying to make a political point that Canada really doesn't have a big political interest in this since it was mostly 'Iranians' who were killed," Horak said. "It's sickening for them to play this card in these circumstances when families are grieving but it's what they do."

Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert with the University of Waterloo, said the locations where bodies are buried could have legal implications later when Canada pushes Iran for financial compensation for the crash victims.

"If they're buried in Iran, it's only going to strengthen the Iranian's argument that they're really just Iranian citizens and the they're not dual citizens," said Momani.

In Islam, she said, "not burying the body is considered torture of the soul.

"For some families, they may be stuck with the pressure to please bury the body because to retrieve it to Canada may take more hurdles, and that's not good for the soul of the deceased person."

Canada and its allies renewed their calls Monday for Iran to release the black boxes from the Ukrainian jetliner to another country so their crucial flight data can be downloaded. The request emerged from Champagne's Monday conference call with counterparts from Britain, Sweden, Afghanistan and Ukraine, all of which lost citizens in the crash.

Trudeau suggested that sending the data recorders to France would be a good idea.

"The black boxes are key to the investigation and there are rules around making sure that they are analyzed quickly and properly in cases such as these. It is not simply a question of having the right experts in place to analyze the black boxes," Trudeau said. "There is a question of significant technological requirements in order to do that that cannot be done in Iran."

A summary of Champagne's call with the four countries that lost nationals in the crash urged Iran "to move the black boxes to a facility with all of the technology and expertise required to quickly and reliably download and analyze the data without delay ... Iran has indicated it is willing to do so."

The report released Monday by Iran's Civil Aviation Organization said the black boxes were damaged but their recordings are intact.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2020.

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