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Source: The Guardian

May 26, 2023

Belgium aid worker freed in prisoner swap with Iranian diplomat jailed for bomb plot

Deal to release Olivier Vandecasteele in exchange for Assadollah Assadi raises concerns Tehran’s hostage diplomacy has been rewarded

BY Patrick Wintour

A Belgian aid worker jailed in Tehran has been released in a prisoner swap with an Iranian diplomat who had been sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in a plan to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris in 2018.

Assadollah Assadi had served just over two years of his 20-year sentence, and his release will raise questions about whether Iranian hostage diplomacy – the practice of seizing dual nationals as bargaining chips – has been rewarded by the Belgian authorities. The final stages of the deal were negotiated by Oman, but Belgium had been negotiating with Iran over the fate of the diplomat for much longer.

Olivier Vandecasteele was arrested in February 2022 and his release was confirmed by Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, who said the aid worker had been taken to Oman for medical checks with Belgian diplomatic staff.

“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran. In unbearable conditions. Innocent,” De Croo wrote. “Olivier Vandecasteele’s return to Belgium is a relief. A relief for his family, friends and colleagues.” In a lengthy written statement, De Croo made no mention of the price paid for Vandecasteele’s release.

Vandecasteele, a long-term aid worker in Iran, was sentenced to a lengthy prison term and 74 lashes after he was convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial. He was also fined $1m. He had apparently only returned to Iran briefly to pick up some belongings.

The swap is especially controversial since the Belgium courts in 2021 found Assadi guilty of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors working with French detectives had shown Assadi was linked to a couple stopped by the Belgian police in 2018 in a Mercedes car and found with 550 grams (1.21 pounds) of TATP explosives and a detonator.

They had intended to target a rally in Villepinte of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the opposition group also known as the National Council of Iranian Resistance.

The prosecutors said that Assadi had smuggled in the explosives on a commercial flight to Austria from Iran then handed the bomb over to Amir Saadouni and his wife, Nasimeh Naami, during a meeting in a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg two days before their arrest. Assadi was arrested the next day in Germany, where he was deemed unable to claim diplomatic immunity as he was on holiday and outside the country where he had been posted.

Among dozens of prominent guests at the rally in Villepinte that day were former US president Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the US House of Representatives; and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Five British MPs including the former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers were also there.

The judge in Antwerp summing up the case said: “This would have been an attack on the democratic state of law and freedom of speech. When the army bomb squad wanted to make the bomb safe, it exploded. A robot was incapacitated. Thousands of people were present at the rally in Paris. This would have resulted in many fatalities due to the explosion but also the subsequent chaos.”

At the time of the trial the minister of justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne, said: “There was no question of a prisoner exchange. We are not going to challenge the principles of our constitutional state.”

Georges-Henri Beauthier, a lawyer for the prosecution, said: “The ruling shows two things: a diplomat doesn’t have immunity for criminal acts … and the responsibility of the Iranian state in what could have been carnage.”

The path to the swap deal was opened when Belgian MPs in July ratified a controversial treaty with Iran that could allow Assadi to be sent back to Tehran. Papers hacked from the Iranian foreign ministry showed Belgium had been negotiating this treaty as far back as 2021.

Out of the 131 MPs present, 79 voted in favour while 41 rejected the treaty, and 11 abstained from the vote. The government insisted it was not giving into blackmail, and it does not allow Belgian citizens to rot in jail.

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