Belgium and Iran exchange prisoners
05/26/2023 11:43 p.m
A Belgian aid worker convicted of espionage in Iran is free. Likewise, an Iranian diplomat who was in prison for a foiled attack on Iranian exile opposition members in Belgium. Critics believe the exchange is sending out a dangerous signal.
In exchange for an Iranian diplomat, Belgium obtained the release of a Belgian imprisoned in Iran for “espionage”. After 455 days in detention, humanitarian worker Olivier Vandecasteele is “finally free,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. The 42-year-old is expected back in Belgium later in the evening. De Croo tweeted a picture of Vandecasteele on the plane and wrote, “Free at last. With us at last.” In return, Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, convicted of terrorism charges, was released, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hussein Amirabdollahian announced. He arrived in Tehran, the state television broadcast a live link with him.
Oman mediated the prisoner exchange. His Sultan Haitham bin Tarik is expected in Tehran on Sunday. The Belgian government expressly did not speak of an exchange of prisoners as part of a controversial agreement with Iran, but referred to a special article in the constitution. However, commentators described the process as an exchange of prisoners. Brussels and Tehran signed an agreement last year that allows for the exchange of prisoners. Critics feared the deal could encourage Iran to take Belgians hostage to use as leverage.
Did Assadi plan an attack on behalf of Tehran?
Assadi, who was arrested in Germany in 2018, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court in Antwerp in 2021 for allegedly planning a bomb attack on a mass demonstration by Iranian exile opposition members in France. To the end, Iran maintained that Assadi was innocent. According to the Iranian judiciary, the development worker Vandecasteele was sentenced to a total of 40 years in prison and 74 lashes. In particular, he was accused of espionage and cooperation with arch-enemy USA as well as money smuggling. Vandecasteele’s prison conditions were “unbearable,” De Croo said. According to the family, Vandecasteele’s health had recently deteriorated significantly.
The case is particularly explosive because, according to the investigation, the 51-year-old Assadi is an employee of the Iranian secret service, whose tasks include monitoring and combating opposition groups inside and outside Iran. It is therefore considered possible that the attack plans in France were based on a direct government order. The opposition group NCRI, which is banned in Iran, also supports this thesis. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) organized the mass rally on June 30, 2018 in Villepinte near Paris. It was also attended by numerous Western supporters, including the lawyer for then US President Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani. The group is controversial in the Iranian diaspora. Some voices called for the deal to be scrapped.
NGO calls exchange shameful
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam from the non-governmental organization “Iran Human Rights” spoke of a “shameful chapter in the history of Belgian foreign policy”. “It endangers all western citizens and dual nationals traveling to Iran’s neighborhood and sends the wrong signal to the Islamic Republic: no matter what crimes you commit, we are ready to make a deal with you!” he tweeted.
The Iranian government had already protested against the arrest of Assadi in Germany because the man was accredited as a diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Vienna at the time of the crime. On July 1, 2018, he was arrested at a motorway service station near Aschaffenburg in Bavaria and then handed over by Germany to Belgium. The German judiciary argued that the man was not under diplomatic protection when he was arrested because he was on a holiday trip outside of Austria. The federal prosecutor’s office had obtained an arrest warrant against Assadi, among other things, because of his activities as a secret service agent and conspiracy to murder.
Critics accuse Iran of detaining foreigners in order to have a bargaining chip. According to the Iranian government, talks about a prisoner swap with the United States are currently on the table again. In 2016, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was released along with three other US citizens. In return, the US pardoned seven Iranians accused of violating US sanctions.
At least 16 Western citizens are currently being held in Iran, most of whom also have Iranian passports. Among them is the German-Iranian Jamshid Sharmahd. At the end of April, the Iranian judiciary confirmed the death sentence against 68-year-old Sharmahd, for whose release the German government is working.