Vandecasteele jail conditions in Iran worsen amid rumours of prisoner swap

Government in Brussels says it is examining an Iranian request to transfer a prisoner

Manon Vandecasteele sits blindfolded in a cell during a protest to call for the release of her uncle Olivier Vandecasteele, a prisoner in Iran. AFP
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The living conditions of a Belgian aid worker detained in Iran have worsened, a representative for his family told The National on Thursday, amid rumours of a possible prisoner swap, which have been denied by the Belgian government.

Last February, Olivier Vandecasteele, 42, was arrested in Iran in what is widely viewed as an attempt to swap him for Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who is imprisoned in Belgium.

Assadi, 50, was sentenced in 2021 to 20 years in prison for orchestrating a plot to blow up an event near Paris, organised by an exiled Iranian opposition group.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo on Thursday told parliament his country was “examining” Tehran's request to allow Assadi to serve his sentence in Iran, one day after the foreign justice ministers denied Iranian reports that a prisoner exchange involving the diplomat and Mr Vandecasteele was imminent.

Quoted by local news agency Belga, Mr de Croo said he had called Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi on April 21 to urge him to release Mr Vandecasteele, or at least improve his prison conditions which he described as akin to “torture.”

“Iran is trying to divide us,” he said. “Let’s not give that to them.”

Last month, Belgium's Constitutional Court upheld a prisoner exchange treaty, opening the door to a possible swap.

Belgian politicians cleared the treaty in July but it has been held up by legal challenges from the exiled targeted by Assadi in 2018, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Mr Vandecasteele was sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of espionage.

He was recently moved from solitary confinement to a 12-square-metre cell shared with two others, said family spokesman Olivier van Steirtegem.

But his prison guards also stripped him of his mattress. He had also been denied a mattress during his first months in detention.

“His situation has worsened. They took away from him the little material comfort that he had,” said Mr van Steirtegem.

Mr Vandecasteele was not informed why he was transferred to a shared cell, said the spokesman.

Since his arrest, Mr Vandecasteele has lost 25kg, suffers from ear, stomach and dental infections and has lost all his toenails.

Mr van Steirtegem said he was doubtful of Iranian claims made earlier this week that a prisoner exchange had been finalised.

“For the moment, news is pretty bad and it doesn’t look like we are any closer to a deal,” he said.

Updated: April 27, 2023, 2:59 PM