Belgian aid worker and Iranian diplomat freed in prisoner swap

Tehran confirmed on Friday May 26 that it has released Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele after nearly 15 months in custody and after being sentenced to 40 years in prison for alleged espionage. Meanwhile, Brussels reported that in return it released Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who remained in a Belgian jail after being accused of terrorism.

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Belgium and Iran exchange prisoners with the mediation of Oman. Belgian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteeleaccused of espionage by Tehran, and the Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadidesignated by Brussels as being linked to an act of terrorism, were released this Friday, May 26.

The Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander de Croo, assured that the 42-year-old aid worker had arrived in Oman and “if everything goes according to plan, he will be with us tonight. Free at last!”, he stressed.

Brussels has always insisted that Vandecasteele was innocent and that he was the victim of a rigged trial. After nearly a year and a half in custody, the man was sentenced last January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of alleged espionage, Tehran authorities said at the time.

“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran in unbearable conditions. He is innocent,” Croo added.

However, in Belgian territory some politicians criticized the swap with the Islamic Republic.

New Flemish Alliance, one of the opposition parties in Belgium, stated in statements collected by the Reuters news agency, that the Government of his country had given in to Iran’s “blackmail” policy.

But the De Croo government insisted that this was the only way to obtain Vandecasteele’s freedom, after a court last March ratified the treaty between Tehran and Brussels that paved the way for Friday’s releases.

Assadi, the Iranian diplomat sentenced in Belgium for terrorism

Meanwhile, Assadi remained in prison after a court sentenced him to 20 years in prison in 2021 for his alleged role in a foiled terrorist attack in France.

According to the Belgian authorities, in 2018 the Iranian diplomat participated in a plot to bomb an opposition demonstration in his country, organized on the outskirts of Paris.

Tehran angrily protested his imprisonment, but the sentence was upheld after Assadi chose not to appeal.

“The innocent diplomat of our country is now back in his homeland and will soon enter our beloved Iran,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Friday.

In this capture of the Iranian state broadcast, the freed Iranian diplomat, Asadollah Assadi, is seen being received by authorities of his country.  On May 26, 2023.
In this capture of the Iranian state broadcast, the freed Iranian diplomat, Asadollah Assadi, is seen being received by authorities of his country. On May 26, 2023. © AFP

The exchange took place in Oman, a regular interlocutor between Tehran and the West. The Omani Foreign Ministry stressed that “the sultanate appreciated the high positive spirit that prevailed in the talks in Muscat between the Iranian and Belgian parties, and their enthusiasm to solve this humanitarian problem.”

Swap strategy?

Since the triumph of the Iranian revolution, Tehran has placed different citizens of dual nationality under arrest, accusing them of espionage, common crimes or charges against state security.

A situation denounced by critics of the Government of the Islamic Republic as a strategy to later use those prisoners as valuable trade targets.

Defendants are often prosecuted in closed-door trials where, according to human rights groups, they are denied the right to due process.

Iran and Belgium have a prisoner exchange treaty signed since 2022.

Various complaints put the agreement on hold, since it could be used to persecute opponents of the ayatollah system. However, the Belgian Constitutional Court gave the green light to the deal this year, shortly after Olivier Vandecasteele’s repatriation process began..

With AP, Reuters and EFE

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