Iran sentences Belgian aid worker to 40 years in jail and 74 lashes for spying

Man was convicted of spying and co-operating with US

Protesters hold photos of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele during a solidarity demonstration in Brussels. AFP
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Iran sentenced a Belgian aid worker to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for spying for the US, money laundering and currency smuggling, Iran's judiciary said on Tuesday.

The Mizan judiciary website said a Revolutionary Court sentenced Olivier Vandecasteele to 12 and a half years in prison for espionage, 12 and a half years for collaboration with hostile governments and 12 and a half years for money laundering. He was also fined $1 million and sentenced to two and a half years for currency smuggling.

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib condemned Mr Vandecasteele's "arbitrary detention" and said Iran's ambassador to Brussels would be summoned in protest at the sentencing.

"Iran has provided no official information regarding the charges against Olivier Vandecasteele or his trial," Ms Lahbib said on Twitter.

"We will summon the Iranian ambassador today," she said, adding that "Belgium continues to condemn the arbitrary detention and is doing everything possible to put an end to it and to improve the conditions of his detention."

It is unclear if the charges are related to anti-government protests that have convulsed Iran for the last four months, which Iranian authorities have blamed on foreign powers, without providing evidence.

The protests began after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, while she was in police custody for wearing her hijab “inappropriately”.

Iran has detained many foreigners and dual nationals over the years, often sentencing them after secretive trials during which rights groups say they are denied due process. Critics accuse Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West, a charge denied by Iranian officials.

Under Iranian law, Mr Vandecasteele, 41, would be eligible for release after 12 and a half years. The judiciary website said the verdicts could be appealed.

Mr Vandecasteele’s family said last month that he had been detained in an Iranian prison for months and had been on hunger strike. They said he was deprived of access to a lawyer of his choice and was suffering from serious health problems.

Belgium has urged its nationals to leave Iran, warning that they face the risk of arbitrary arrest or unfair trial.

Mr Vandecasteele’s family and rights groups including Amnesty International say the case is an example of Iran's tactic of taking foreigners hostage to pressure western countries to make concessions.

His family said in July that Iran was seeking to force Belgium to release one of its diplomats who was in 2021 found guilty of masterminding a 2018 foiled bomb attack outside Paris.

On March 11, less than three weeks after his arrest, Belgium signed a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran — leading to claims that it was ceding to “odious blackmail”.

Also on Tuesday, the judiciary said another man had been sentenced to death in connection with the protests.

Mr Javad Rouhi was sentenced on charges of “corruption on Earth”, Mizan reported.

The sentence, which can be appealed, brings the number of people the judiciary have announced have been condemned to death in connection with the protests to 18.

Mr Rouhi was found guilty of “leading a group of rioters”, “inciting people to create insecurity”, as well as of “apostasy by desecration of the Quran by burning it”, Mizan Online reported.

He was also found guilty of “setting fire to and destroying property in a way that causes severe disruption to the country's public order and security”, it added.

Iranian authorities say hundreds of people, including members of the security forces, have been killed and thousands arrested during the protests, which they mostly describe as “riots”.

Tehran accuses hostile foreign countries and opposition groups of stoking the unrest.

Four executions have been carried out, and six of those sentenced to capital punishment have been granted retrials.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 6:04 PM