Canadian Iranian activist says Iran won't let his parents leave the country

Canadian Iranian activist says Iran won't let his parents leave the country

Canadian Iranian human rights activist Hamed Esmaeilion — who lost his wife and child in the destruction of Flight PS752 by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — says his parents have now been banned from leaving Iran, despite their permanent resident status in Canada.

In an interview with CBC News, Esmaeilion also accused Iran's Intelligence Ministry of harassing and intimidating his family members in Iran with repeated phone calls.

"The amount of pressure that they apply on families, it's inhumane," he said. "It's brutal what they're doing."

Esmaeilion's wife and nine-year-old daughter were killed in January 2020 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran with a pair of surface-to-air missiles. All 176 people onboard died, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

A photo of a happy family.
Parisa Eghbalian, left, Reera Esmaeilion, centre and Hamed Esmaeilion. Eghbalian and her daughter Reera were both killed when their aircraft was shot down. Esmeilion is a board member on the association representing Flight PS752 victims' families. (Madeline McNair/CBC)

Esmaeilion and the families of other victims have been staging protests demanding justice ever since. Esmaeilion and the families in Canada have personally reported threatening phone calls and online messages to the RCMP that they believe could be tied to proxies of Iran's regime. CSIS last year told CBC News it was investigating credible reports of death threats from Iran against individuals on Canadian soil.

Esmaeilion said his mother and father were barred last week from leaving Iran for six months, with no explanation.

University of Ottawa Iran expert Thomas Juneau said this development suggests Iran's regime is ramping up its campaign to try to silence dissidents abroad.

Iran's government, he said, is sending the Iranian diaspora a message: "We are watching your family. We follow them. We know who they are. We know where they live and we are willing to pressure them to try to repress you."

Banning travel is a common move by dictatorships that allows them to maintain "leverage on dissidents abroad," Juneau said.

Campaign of retaliation

Esmaeilion said he believes Tehran is retaliating against him and others over their campaign to hold Iran accountable for the destruction of Flight PS752, and to expel regime members from Canada.

One former Iranian minister, banned from Canada by the federal government in August, reportedly told an Iranian media outlet that he would seek retaliation against Esmaeilion.

Esmaeilion called for the former minister to be deported after a photo surfaced allegedly showing the former minister, Seyed Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, walking down the street in Montreal with his family.

Months later, when Esmaeilion's 73-year-old mother, Tooran Shamsollahi, went to the airport in Tehran, she was stopped by IRGC officials, he said.

An elderly couple at an airport.
A witness captured a photo of Tooran Shamsollahi at the airport in Iran with her husband Ahmad Esmaeilion after the IRGC said she couldn't board the plane. (Hamed Esmaeilion)

Shamsollahi had her boarding pass in hand to travel to the Toronto to mark the fourth anniversary of the deaths of her granddaughter and daughter-in-law. Esmaeilion said his mother joins him every year on the anniversary at the burial site in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Esmaeilion said his father, Ahmad Esmaeilion, was at the airport dropping her off when she was told she couldn't get on the plane. He said a witness at the airport also sent him a photo of his mother in distress after the IRGC informed her she could not leave.

Esmaeilion said his mother's passport was confiscated and she was told to go to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Court. Both his parents were later informed they couldn't travel because of evidence the Ministry of Intelligence had against them, he said. 

His parents haven't been charged and have not been told anything about the alleged evidence, Esmaeilion said. He said Iran's Ministry of Intelligence hasn't left his family alone since.

'If you go in, you never know if you'll come back'

If his mother doesn't pick up the phone, he said, the ministry calls his father. If his dad doesn't pick up, they move onto calling his brother and then extended family members, he said.

"They're calling them constantly and saying they have to come into the intelligence ministry to have a conversation," he said. 

"We never know if you go in, if you'll come back. Torture and horrible news comes out of the Intelligence Ministry and IRGC offices."

An aircraft crash scene.
Rescue workers search the scene where a Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Juneau said it's standard operating procedure in Iran to not share evidence with regime targets because "there is no evidence."

"The only evidence against them, is the fact that in this case her son is abroad and is a human rights activist against the Islamic Republic," said Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs.

The Revolutionary Court is "not free or fair by any stretch of the imagination" and targets opponents of the regime and their families, he added. Juneau said those who have been called in to the Ministry of Intelligence have been intimidated, imprisoned or tortured.

Esmaeilion said Manzar Zarabi, who lost four family members on Flight PS752, was arrested and beaten by Iranian security forces at the end of October. She was among a group of activists apprehended at a funeral for an Iranian teenage girl, Esmaeilion said. He said Zarabi was detained for more than 30 hours.

Zarabi's daughter Sahand Sadeghi, son Alvand Sadeghi, daughter-in-law Negar Borghei, and granddaughter Sophie Emami lived in Canada and died on Flight PS752.

Global Affairs Canada posted on social media that it's "deeply concerned about new reports of intimidation of family members of Flight PS752."

"We call on Iran to immediately cease its campaign of harassment and intimidation of these families," the department posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Esmaeilion said the government needs to do more to keep victims' families safe. He said he wants the federal government to ask the UN's International Court of Justice to address the matter as part of the Flight PS752 case.

Canada and other countries that lost citizens in the destruction of the plane referred the case in July to the International Court of Justice.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer, human rights activist and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the federal government could ask the court to take note of Iran's behaviour. He said Canada also could ask the court to call on Iran's regime to stop "adversely interfering with this case, which is what Iran's regime is effectively doing at this moment."

Global Affairs Canada said it's aware of Flight PS752 victims' families request for provisional measures, but cannot comment on its litigation strategy.

WATCH: How Iran tracks and threatens people in Canada   

Exposing how Iran tracks and threatens people in Canada

1 year ago

Duration 7:45

Featured VideoCSIS recently confirmed there are multiple 'credible' death threats from Iran aimed at people in Canada. CBC News’s chief correspondent Adrienne Arsenault meets with several Iranians who describe their experiences of being monitored and intimidated on Canadian soil.

Dennis Horak, Canada's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said there's "not much" Canada can do for people being persecuted by Tehran. He said states that want to punish Canadians for dissident activities "will not hesitate when they think it's in their interest to do so."

"Additionally, as these individuals are not Canadian citizens, we wouldn't have any standing to formally intervene even if we did have diplomatic ties," Horak said.

CBC News requested a comment from Iran's foreign ministry and has not yet received a response. 

"Canada and its partners, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K., continue to work closely on efforts to hold Iran accountable for its violations of international law," said Marilyne Guèvremont, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

The U.K. is also part of the PS752 case and Britain's domestic intelligence chief also accused Iran of using violence and intimidation abroad to pursue its interests.

Esmaeilion posted on social media that if Iran's regime wants to deny his mother the right to travel to Canada to visit their loved ones' graves, he "has no doubt that many more will take my mother's place" on the fourth anniversary of the plane's downing.