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

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

26 May 2023, 11:30am BST

Updated 18 minutes ago

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A court in Iran sentenced Olivier Vandecasteele to 40 years in prison after convicting him of espionage.

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

The Belgian prime minister announced that Vandecasteele was currently flying home “after 455 days of imprisonment in Tehran in unbearable conditions”.

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

The two men were first flown to Oman, which brokered the exchange.

Vandecasteele was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes in January after an Iranian court convicted him of espionage and several other charges. He denied any wrongdoing, while Belgium said the charges were “fabricated” and constituted punishment for the conviction of Mr Assad.

Assad was jailed for 20 years by a court in Belgium, which found him guilty of planning a bomb attack on the rally of an Iranian opposition group in exile in France. Iran insisted that his arrest, trial and conviction violated international law.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo announced in a statement that Vandecasteele was flown Thursday night from Iran to Oman, where he was cared for by Belgian military personnel and diplomats and underwent a series of medical examinations.

“If everything goes according to plan, he will be with us this time [Friday] evening. Finally free!” he said.

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

Mr. Vandecasteele’s family and friends also celebrated.

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

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Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted: “Assadollah Assadi, our country’s innocent diplomat, who was illegally detained in Germany and Belgium for more than two years against international law, is now on his way home his”.

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 discussions 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 an opposition group allegedly targeted by Mr. Assadi, Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

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

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

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