KYIV — An Iranian man who obtained security camera footage showing that two missiles fired by Iranian military forces brought down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran last week fears being arrested by authorities and has gone into hiding, the man’s friend who published the now-viral video told BuzzFeed News.
The two-minute-long video, verified by BuzzFeed News, provides the most complete visual account yet of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8. It’s the only piece of footage to show both missiles being launched and striking the Boeing 737, which is seen falling from the sky over the village of Khalaj Abad moments later. Other videos published online have shown the plane being struck by one missile before crashing to the ground in a ball of flames, killing all 176 people on board.
Iran initially blamed the downing on technical problems aboard the plane but later admitted that its military had accidentally shot it down, and that the airliner had been mistaken for a cruise missile. Despite the admission, Tehran has been careful not to release too many details about how the incident unfolded and hasn’t confessed to striking the plane twice. Its military is now apparently going after citizens who’ve published videos online that have helped to provide a more complete picture of what happened.
A person who posted a video online last week showing one of the missiles striking the plane was taken into custody by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. The man who uploaded that video later claimed that the wrong man was arrested and his source who provided the video was safe.
Javad, an Iranian with a love of social media and DIY videos living near Tehran, told BuzzFeed News he uploaded the security camera footage of the two missiles to YouTube in the early hours of Jan. 14. He said a friend had obtained and then sent him the video after realizing its significance.
BuzzFeed News is not publishing Javad’s surname and withholding the name of his source over concerns for their safety.
Javad said that neither he nor his friend realized the impact the video would have when they discussed uploading it to YouTube.
“I didn’t think it would change everything,” said Javad, who provided the original video file to BuzzFeed News.
But shortly after he uploaded the video, it spread across social media and was verified and written about by the New York Times.
News of the arrest of a man who filmed the first missile video came around the same time the video Javad uploaded went viral. He said that arrest prompted his friend to delete his social media profiles and go underground.
“Now he has deleted his accounts and doesn’t want to be shown, for security reasons,” Javad said.
Javad said rumors are swirling around Tehran that security forces are looking for witnesses who’ve published videos and other content about the downing of Flight 752. Like his friend, he is scared but doesn’t plan to delete the video or his profiles on YouTube and Twitter.
“It’s possible I’ll be arrested or made to give a forced confession but it’s not important,” he tweeted after speaking with BuzzFeed News. “Let the reasons become clear for those who still have doubts in their hearts as to who is right. Even if one person becomes informed, I am ready to accept the problems to the best of my ability. My will is ready, God willing it won’t become necessary.”
While tensions between the US and Iran were high on Jan. 8, days after an American drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and hours after Tehran had retaliated by firing missiles on Iraqi bases housing US troops, flights at the Imam Khomeini International Airport were operating normally. Publicly available flight data showed several flights taking off that day and Flight 752 following its predetermined route.
But about three minutes after takeoff, as it climbed past 8,000 feet, the plane’s transponder stopped working — indicating the first missile strike. About 25 seconds later, as the video shared by Javad shows, a second missile struck the plane. But it continued to fly, turning back in the direction of the airport before crashing.
Javad declined to identify the exact location where the video was taken, as to not give away the location of his friend who obtained it. But he confirmed that it was filmed on a rooftop near the village of Bid Kaneh, four miles from an Iranian military site and 25 miles northwest of the airport. As for the time code displaying 2019-10-17 in the video, he said it was likely because the camera was programmed to use the Persian instead of the Gregorian calendar.
Iran has been engulfed in protests since the plane’s downing, with opponents of the government demanding the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resign. Iranian authorities said they’ve arrested several people involved in the crash. Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani delivered a televised speech on Tuesday in which he called for a special court to be set up to investigate the incident.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday they were working behind the scenes to ensure the plane’s black boxes would be examined on their soil. An official from the country's National Security and Defense Council, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk about sensitive matters freely, said that the Ukrainian government wants its experts, along with those from France, the UK, and Boeing, to examine the devices.
The official said Ukraine was “gently pressing” Tehran on the issue in the same way it had pressed Iran to admit to downing the plane — by “showing there’s no other way.”