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Champagne rejects Iran ‘human error’ finding as black boxes downloaded in Paris

OTTAWA — Canada and its allies have overcome months of Iranian “stalling” to finally get the flight recorders of the Ukrainian passenger jet that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down, says Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

While Canadian investigators were in Paris on Monday to take part in the long-awaited downloading of crucial flight data and cockpit voice recordings from the Jan. 8 crash, Champagne rejected a recent Iranian finding of human error as the cause.

“It’s a much-needed, a long-overdue step in the investigation. But I think we all need to realize we’re still a long way to go in this investigation, to have a full air-safety and criminal investigation where we’ll have full transparency and accountability in accordance with international standards,” the minister told The Canadian Press as he travelled from his Shawinigan, Que. riding to Ottawa.

“Iran has been stalling for many, many months now. We have been pushing, we have been raising the issue to the board of ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, asking them to take steps,” Champagne added.

Champagne was speaking hours after the Canada’s Transportation Safety Board confirmed that after Tehran’s nearly four-month delay, the so-called black boxes had arrived in Paris.

The TSB sent a team to Paris to witness the downloading of the data, after an Iranian news agency report that they had been shipped on Saturday.

Champagne rejected another report earlier this month by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization that human error was to blame for the missile strike that killed all 176 people on board, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents and dozens of others with connections to Canada.

The report depicted a chain of events where the shootdown could have been avoided. It said that the Revolutionary Guard surface-to-air missile battery that targeted the Boeing 737-800 had not been properly reoriented after it had been moved. The report said those manning the battery could not communicate with their command centre and that they fired twice on a plane that they misidentified without getting approval from their superiors.

“It cannot just be the result of a human error,” Champagne said.

“There is no circumstance under (which) a civilian aircraft can be downed just by the result of human error in this day and age.”

Champagne also spoke to his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drain, on Monday morning.

Monday marked a crucial step for grieving families seeking answers to why Iran’s military fired two missiles at the passenger jet shortly after take-off from the Tehran airport.

Iran initially denied responsibility but was forced to acknowledge the shootdown after video footage on social media appeared to show at least one missile striking the jet. The tragedy unfolded after Iran launched missiles into Iraq at two American military bases in retaliation for the U.S. having killed a top Iranian general.

Hamed Esmaeilion, a Toronto dentist whose wife and nine-year-old daughter were killed on the plane, said the downloading of the black box data is all good and well, but he’s still not satisfied Iran will allow an independent international investigation to unfold now, given its past stalling, and its most recent human-error finding.

“The last report is laughable,” said Esmaeilion, who has become a spokesman for the victims’ families and loved ones.

“The black box is a distraction here. There are more important questions.”

He said investigators need to focus more on the workings of Iran’s Russian-made Tor system, known to NATO as the SA-15, which is mounted on a tracked vehicle and carries a radar and a pack of eight missiles.

Esmaeilion said that when he pushed TSB on what it knew about the missile system, the agency responded that it would ask the Defence Department for more information.

“That another part of this puzzle, plus who kept the sky open and why they destroyed the crash site,” said Esmaeilion. “The black box is not the main issue. We know that.”

Champagne acknowledged the flight recorders would form one part, albeit an important one, of a flight-safety investigation and an international criminal investigation to identify the people responsible for shooting down the plane.

“What we need to understand, and I hope that the analysis of the flight data recorder and the voice recorder will provide additional information with respect to the fact and circumstances which led to this tragedy,” the minister said.

Kathy Fox, the chair of the TSB, said in a statement that the retrieval of the flight recorders is “an important milestone” towards a thorough and transparent safety investigation.

“It is our hope that data from these recorders can provide additional valuable information to inform the investigation which in the end will help bring answers and closure to the families,” said Fox.

Iran’s delegate to the International Civil Aviation Organization told the organization on March 11 that the flight data and cockpit voice recorders would be sent to Ukraine’s aviation investigators by March 25, but later blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the delay.

Britain, Ukraine Afghanistan and Sweden also lost citizens when the plane was destroyed, and the countries formed an alliance with Canada to deal with Iran.

Champagne and his counterparts from those countries have been pushing Iran to release the flight recorders and they will continue to push for answers.

“All the facts and circumstances point to more than just a human error, so certainly we will continue to pursue vigorously the investigation. We will continue to hold Iran — the Iranian regime — to account.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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