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Iran’s president says a special court should look into the military’s shooting down of a passenger jet

President Hassan Rouhani is asking for candor in any official findings about the jetliner’s downing.
President Hassan Rouhani is asking for candor in any official findings about the jetliner’s downing. Iranian Presidency Office via AP

NEW YORK — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Tuesday called for a special court to examine the downing of a passenger plane that killed 176 people, as protests flared in several cities over the disaster and officials’ shifting explanations for it.

Yet Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a powerful arm of the military, said it had arrested the person it identified as having made a video of a missile attacking the plane, which undercut the military’s initial denials that Iran was responsible. The announcement was released by Iranian media outlets affiliated with the Guard.

For three days after the crash of a Ukraine International Airlines jetliner, the military blamed mechanical failure. It eventually acknowledged it had mistakenly shot the jet down with a missile, but insisted that “human error” was to blame, not any systemic problem.

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Meanwhile, The New York Times on Tuesday said it had verified security camera footage that showed, for the first time, that two missiles hit Flight 752 on Jan. 8. The missiles were launched from an Iranian military site about eight miles from the plane.

The new video fills a gap about why the plane’s transponder stopped working, seconds before it was hit by a second missile.

An earlier Times analysis confirmed what Iran later admitted: An Iranian missile did strike the plane. The Times also established that the transponder stopped working before that missile hit the plane. The new video appears to confirm that an initial strike disabled the transponder, before the second strike, also seen in the video, around 23 seconds later.

In an apparent criticism of the military, Rouhani, a moderate, urged that any official inquiry be candid in its findings. But some hard-line lawmakers have lashed out at his administration, demanding resignations.

Gholam Hossein Ismaili, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, said “arrests have been” made in the case but did not provide any details, leaving it unclear how many people had been detained or how senior they were.

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“It would have been better if they had announced from the beginning that commissions are investigating,” Ismaili said, in an apparent criticism of the military and the government for the initial misleading statements.

Ismaili said the flight data recorders recovered from the Ukrainian plane would be sent to France for analysis.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is expected to deliver a Friday prayer sermon this week, a role he plays only at times of major crisis; the last was eight years ago.

The Ukrainian plane was shot down Jan. 8, shortly after takeoff from Tehran, as hostilities between Iran and the United States had escalated after a US airstrike killed General Qassem Soleimani. Hours before the airliner crashed, Iran had fired missiles at US forces in Iraq in response to the general’s killing, and Iranian forces were on guard for retaliation.

After three days of denying any role in the crash, Iran’s military admitted that the plane had been hit by at least one of its missiles.

Rouhani, a former commander of Iran’s air defense forces, said Tuesday that he wanted the issue “to be addressed to the people with honesty.”

“The familiarity I have with air defense issue, I say that it can’t be one person who is responsible for this,” he said, according to the state news agency. “Not just the person who pressed the button — there are others, too.”

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Ali Rabeei, a spokesman for Rouhani, has said that the government did not lie, but initially made incorrect statements because it did not have all the relevant information in a tense, fast-changing situation.

“Perhaps, I can even say, it was due to being kept uninformed,” Rabeei said.

Rouhani asked the judiciary on Tuesday to create a “special court, with a high-ranking judge and tens of experts,” to look into the downing of the airliner.

“This is not a regular case,” Rouhani said. “The whole world will watch this trial.”

Amid a heavy security presence in Tehran, protests broke out on several university campuses on Tuesday, as they have daily since the government admitted the plane had been shot down. At Tehran University, where Khamenei had prayed over the coffin of Soleimani just days earlier, students chanted about the ayatollah, “our shame, our shame is our supreme leader.”

At Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, students castigated officials who had misled the public about the crash while saying they were mourning the victims. “If you are mourning why did you cover it up for three days?” they chanted.

Ismaili, the judiciary spokesman, said about 30 people have been arrested in the recent days of protest. Among them was the British ambassador, Rob Macaire, who was held for several hours. The British government condemned his detention as a clear violation of international law.

“We will not allow anyone to deface the country’s security,” Ismaili said.

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Officials in Tehran said on Tuesday that 61 of the 176 crash victims had been identified through DNA testing, and that their remains could be handed over to their families.