Tension rises on eve of Iranian bomb plot verdicts

Iran seeks to put pressure on Europe as court prepares to rule on appeals by jailed trio

Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi is accused of conspiring to blow up a dissidents' rally. US Embassy Iran

A Belgian court is set to rule on Tuesday on the appeals by three accomplices of a senior Iranian intelligence spymaster behind a failed plot to blow up a rally attended by thousands of dissidents.

The trio claimed to be acting under duress during a failed attempt to plant and detonate a bomb at a rally by opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran on the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

The verdicts are expected to be delivered by an appeals court in Antwerp on Tuesday at a sensitive time in Iran’s relations with Europe.

Iran has been trying to secure the release of the attack’s mastermind, Vienna-based diplomat Assadollah Assadi, from his 20-year jail term through diplomatic channels.

He is the only one of the four jailed over the France bomb plot not to appeal against his conviction.

The other three – an Antwerp-based Iranian couple recruited to plant the bomb and an intelligence official – say they were put under pressure to act by the Iranian intelligence services. They claimed they were told the bomb was not powerful enough to kill.

Verdicts are also expected within weeks in a high-profile trial in Sweden closely linked to the long-running enmity between Iran and the NCRI.

Hamid Nouri, a former prosecutor’s assistant, is accused of involvement in the murders of dozens of regime opponents held in Iranian jails in 1988.

Rights groups say about 5,000 people were killed, predominantly members of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK) group during a purge of its members over several months at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

The MEK provides the rump membership of the NCRI, which has long agitated for the overthrow of the clerical regime in Tehran. Mr Nouri was arrested following a tip-off by a former prisoner after he flew to Sweden to see members of his family.

The criminal cases are set to conclude as negotiations continue to try to resume the 2015 nuclear deal after president Donald Trump withdrew from the pact and reintroduced sanctions.

Rights groups fear that Iran is also using the lives of detained dual nationals to improve their weak bargaining hand in the talks.

Tehran announced the execution date of the detained Iranian-Swedish academic, Ahmadreza Djalali, on the day that the trial of Mr Nouri was adjourned to await verdicts.

Mr Djalali has academic links with both Belgium and Sweden. He was arrested in 2016. accused of passing information to Israel's Mossad and sentenced to death. The accusations have been dismissed as politically motivated by his family.

Rights groups said the latest death sentence announcement was part of a pattern of behaviour to try to put pressure on the Swedish judiciary.

“It’s a very complicated multi-dimensional chess game being played diplomatically,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

“They have definitely increased their activities against dissidents abroad while at the same time they have a consistent policy of holding hostages to exchange for their agents. It looks like they are going down the same negotiating path by threatening to execute Ahmadreza Djalali.”

Mr Djalali was moved to another prison in anticipation of his execution on the eve of the verdicts against Assadi and his three accomplices in 2020.

Iran did not carry out the sentence even after Assadi was sentenced in February 2021 to 20 years in jail, husband-and-wife team Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami for 15 and 18 years respectively and a third agent, Mehrdad Arefani, was jailed for 17 years.

But Mr Djalali is again being used as a pawn in the battle, said Mr Ghaemi. “The Iranian government has been collecting dual nationals to use in its arsenal of human bargaining chips for years and is now threatening to kill one of them to secure impunity for one of its officials,” he said.

Belgium’s Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes confirmed last month that she and her Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian, discussed the issue of Mr Assadi’s imprisonment in February. Iran said that it considered his conviction and sentence to be a breach of diplomatic immunity.

“You will understand that for my part I did not wish to comment on this decision of the Belgian justice,” she said in a written answer to Belgian MP Michael Freilich who expressed concerns about the possibility of a swap. “There is no legal framework that could allow an exchange of prisoners.”

The semi-official Fars news agency last month linked the success of the nuclear talks with attempts by Iran to secure the release of Assadi.

Ali Safavi, a senior official for NCRI, said: “The threat to execute Ahmadreza Djalali is a desperate and last-ditch ploy by Iran’s ruling theocracy to blackmail both the Belgian and Swedish judiciaries.

“The West must condemn in strongest terms the regime’s latest brazen demand.”

Updated: May 09, 2022, 4:19 PM