Olivier Vandecasteele: Belgian aid worker released in exchange for Iranian diplomat


An Iranian court sentenced Olivier Vandecasteele to 40 years in prison after convicting him of espionage

Belgium and Iran conducted a prisoner exchange involving Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele and Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi.

The Belgian Prime Minister announced that Mr. Vandecasteele was currently returning home “after 455 days in prison in Tehran in unbearable conditions”.

Iran’s foreign minister tweeted that Mr Assadi was on his way after being “illegally detained” for two years.

The pair were first flown to Oman, which brokered the swap.

Mr Vandecasteele was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes in January after an Iranian court found him guilty of espionage and several other charges. He denied any wrongdoing, while Belgium said the charges were “fabricated” and constituted retribution for Mr Assadi’s sentence.

Mr Assadi was imprisoned for 20 years by a Belgian court, which found him guilty of planning a bomb attack against a gathering of an exiled Iranian opposition group in France. Iran insisted that his arrest, trial and conviction violated international law.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo announced in a statement that Mr. Vandecasteele had been transported Thursday evening from Iran to Oman, where he was taken care of by Belgian soldiers and diplomats and underwent several medical examinations.

“If everything goes as planned, he will be with us this (Friday) evening. Finally free!” he said.

“For me, the choice has always been clear. Olivier’s life has always come first. It’s a responsibility that I take on myself, that I accept. In Belgium, we don’t abandon anyone.”

Family and friends of Mr. Vandecasteele also celebrated.

“Olivier is free!” they wrote on a Twitter account set up to campaign on his behalf, above a nighttime photograph showing him standing next to a plane. “We are waiting for you!”

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Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted: “Assadollah Assadi, the innocent diplomat of our country, who has been illegally detained in Germany and Belgium for more than two years in violation of international law, is now on his way to return to his homeland.

He also thanked Oman for its role in securing his release.

“The Sultanate of Oman appreciates the high-level positive spirit that prevailed during the talks in Muscat between the Iranian and Belgian sides, and their commitment to resolving this humanitarian issue,” he added.

Belgium and Iran signed a controversial prisoner exchange treaty last year.

However, its implementation was delayed until March by an unsuccessful legal challenge by the opposition group allegedly targeted by Mr Assadi, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

Following his release, the NCRI – the political wing of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) – accused Belgium of paying “a shameful ransom to terrorism and the taking of hostages”.

He also said the move violated the Belgian Constitutional Court’s order that victims of a convicted person should be informed of a planned transfer so that they can seek judicial review of its legality.

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