Flag-draped coffins and special burial plots: Iranian propaganda shrouds plane crash victims’ funerals

VANCOUVER—Relatives of a B.C. family of three who were killed in a downed Ukrainian passenger jet outside Tehran were relieved this week when they received the remains of their loved ones.

But there was one thing that caught them off-guard: The remains were returned in caskets wrapped in the Iranian flag.

Government officials never asked the family’s permission, said a cousin of Port Coquitlam, B.C., residents Ardalan Ebnoddin-Hamidi, his wife, Niloofar Razzaghi and their 15-year-old son, Kamyar Ebnoddin-Hamidi, all of whom were killed in the crash.

“They did what they wanted and they have to accept it,” said the cousin by phone from Tehran, where a funeral was held for the three family members this week. The Star agreed not to identify him because of his fear that speaking out could jeopardize his safety.

Interference from what some call Iran’s propaganda machine has been an added burden on already-grieving families, several members of the Iranian-Canadian community said this week.

And it’s not just the flag-draped caskets causing a fuss; relatives of some of the victims are also allegedly facing pressure to appear on state television to make supportive statements about Iran’s regime.

“It’s kind of known for the government of Iran to, in a situation like this, try to leverage the situation and pressure the family as much as they can to create their own propaganda stories,” said Reza Akbari, president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton.

“In Iran, the system is fully controlled at every level — by the government, by the regime.”

Ottawa, meanwhile, says it is “deeply concerned” about reports some Iranian-Canadian families have been pressured to bury their loved ones in Iran instead of repatriating them to Canada.

“The Iranian government must respect the will of the families when it comes to the repatriation of the bodies: this is a message that the Minister of Foreign Affairs has conveyed directly to his Iranian counterpart,” read a statement from the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who is in London to chair a meeting with his counterparts from countries who lost citizens in the crash.

Of the 176 people who perished on Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, which was brought down “unintentionally” by missiles fired by the Iranian military, 138 were bound for Canada — 57 of them Canadian citizens.

Though burials have begun, it is not clear where the Iranian government is at in terms of identifying and turning over all the remains. The RCMP did confirm this week that it was asked to collect DNA samples from relatives of some of the Canadian victims to assist with identification of remains in Iran.

“On-site disaster victim identification assistance from Canada has not been requested at this time,” the RCMP said in a statement.

Niloofar Razzaghi, her husband Ardalan Ebnoddin-Hamidi and their son, Kamyar Ebnoddin-Hamidi, lived in Port Coquitlam, B.C. The family was killed with 173 other people when a Ukrainian International Airlines flight crashed just after taking off from Tehran Jan. 8.

Relatives of the Port Coquitlam family killed in the crash say they were pleased to learn their loved ones’ remains were identified relatively quickly through DNA matches with other family members in Iran. Government officials there told relatives they appreciated the victims’ sacrifices and described them as “champions.”

But the sight of the caskets wrapped in Iranian flags was still a bit jarring, said the cousin in Tehran.

“It’s a little bit unfair. They should’ve asked the family … But they never asked,” he said, adding it especially doesn’t make sense for the son because he was born in Canada.

One video widely circulated on social media this week appears to show one family tearing off the flag from a casket. While some families feel emboldened to take such measures, others may feel reluctant — worried there could be consequences for such an act of defiance, said the cousin.

One thing is clear: The mood of the mourners has shifted from grief to anger over the fact no one has been held accountable over the errant missile launch, the cousin said.

“The cries now have changed to hate.”

The cousin, who used to live in B.C. but returned to Iran a few years ago, said he had hoped to use some of his Canadian experiences to help improve Iran — but the system is hard to change.

“In Canada they say when you come, you bring your culture to add to Canada. The approach here is different. It’s very hard to use your experience,” he said.

“The system is not as open.”

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Sima Ghaffarzadeh, editor-in-chief of B.C. Farsi-language magazine Hamyaari, said her brother recently attended a funeral in Iran for a friend killed in the crash. He told her many families have been sent to Tehran’s main cemetery, Behesht Zahra, to collect the remains, which are wrapped in white cloth shrouds, then placed in caskets adorned with the Iranian flag.

“My brother says that should be done to martyrs only and in his view these victims are not martyrs,” she said.

Apparently families have also been given the option of burying their loved ones in a special section of the cemetery devoted to martyrs, but Ghaffarzadeh said her brother told her “most families did not accept.” Relatives of the Port Coquitlam family said they opted to bury them in a regular section of the cemetery.

The question of whether these crash victims are martyrs or not is a difficult one to answer, said Amir Bajehkian, a member of B.C.’s multicultural advisory council.

“It’s complicated. To me they are martyrs because they lost their lives as a result of an action taken by (Iran). To them, they died in a ‘war’ as a result of U.S. aggression.”

At the same time, Bajehkian said he can understand why some families would wish to remove the Iranian flag from caskets.

“Understandable how some families don’t want to take part in (Islamic Republic of Iran) propaganda,” he said.

“By no means do I think the U.S. is a saint. Their lunacy in killing Soleimani started this,” he said of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian commander targeted by a U.S. airstrike. “But this does not mean (Iran) is not responsible.”

Meanwhile, Akbari alleges government officials have told some families if they want the processing of remains to be done more quickly, they need to “sit with us in front of the camera, say and act the way we want it.”

Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad has posted a couple videos online in recent days purportedly showing the families of two victims who were studying in Canada appearing on Iranian television. She suggests their appearances were made under duress.

In one video, the TV presenter introduces the family of Fatemeh Mahmoodi, who was a graduate student at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, standing alongside a military general, who appears to be Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

Another video shows the father of University of Alberta PhD student Amir Hossein Saeedinia saying that his son wanted to come back to Iran. “How can one not pay attention to the words of Iran’s Great Supreme Leader,” he says, according to Alinejad’s translation.

While some families have appeared on state television, others have not spoken at all.

Kei Esmaeilpour, president of the Civic Association of Iranian Canadians in B.C., says that is another way the rigidity of the regime and concern about its image has been demonstrated.

It’s his understanding that before crash victims’ remains are turned over, families have been given instructions from government officials: Do not speak to the foreign media.

Some families would like to speak out, he said, but they are reluctant because “they are afraid of the (Iranian) government.”

TORONTO STAR