Prison conditions in Iran threaten health of Olivier Vandecasteele

Belgian aid worker, who suffers from numerous infections, has been in solitary confinement for nearly a year

A rally in Brussels last month to demand the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, held by Tehran since February. AFP
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The health of a Belgian aid worker who has been sentenced to 40 years in prison in Iran is deteriorating rapidly, a spokesman for his supporters has told The National.

Olivier Vandecasteele, who has been detained in Iran for almost a year, will also receive 74 lashes and a $1 million fine, the judiciary said on Tuesday.

Olivier van Steirtegem, a friend of Mr Vandecasteele, said that he had lost 25kg and suffered from ear, stomach and dental infections that have not received proper medical attention. All his toenails have reportedly fallen off.

Last month, the family begged him to stop a hunger strike, which he conducted during what Mr van Steirtegem described as a “sham trial”, when they were allowed to speak to him for the first time on December 24 in a 10-minute video call.

“We told him: you need to help us buy more time, because we are doing everything we can to get you out,” Mr van Steirtegem said.

Mr van Steirtegem described Mr Vandecasteele’s detention conditions as torture.

Mr Vandecasteele, 41, has been in solitary confinement since his arrest in February 2022, which is widely believed to be linked to Iran's efforts to obtain the release of one of its diplomats jailed in Belgium for terrorism.

The lights are constantly on in his six-square-metre basement cell, and he had to wait for several months before being given a mattress to sleep on, Mr van Steirtegem said.

“The toilets in his cell are just a hole in the ground and he must ask for permission from the guards [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC] to throw a bucket of water down the hole from time to time,” he said.

“He is fed neither fruit nor vegetables and has no access to books. We were told that all the books we have sent him were lost.”

'Hard blow' for family

Belgium's Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne previously described the aid worker's detention conditions as inhumane.

Hearing about his sentence this week via the media was a “hard blow” for the family, who have been on an “emotional roller coaster”, Mr van Steirtegem said.

They do not know where Mr Vandecasteele is currently located, although they do know that he was detained at Evin prison in Tehran for the first five months after his arrest before he was moved to an unknown location.

Last week, he was taken blindfolded to his first half-hour meeting with the Belgian ambassador to Iran in the presence of Iranian security guards, Mr van Steirtegem said.

We can’t let an innocent man die in prison
Olivier van Steirtegem, spokesman for Olivier Vandecasteele's supporters

The Belgian ambassador confirmed to the family that he was in bad health.

Wounds caused by tight chains on his hands and ankles during his trial in December were still visible during their meeting, according to Mr van Steirtegem.

“Even if he were freed soon, he would need months or years to recover,” Mr van Steirtegem said.

The UN has called for the prohibition of long-term solitary confinement due to the acute psychological damage it causes.

Belgium's Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned Iran's ambassador on Tuesday after Mr Vandecasteele was sentenced for alleged spying, money laundering and currency smuggling.

Mr Vandecasteele was handed sentences totalling 40 years on a range of charges, but because they run concurrently, he will serve 12 and a half years in jail, the judiciary's Mizan Online website reported.

He can appeal against the verdict, the website said.

"No information regarding the charges or the verdict has ever been officially provided by Iran," Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said on Twitter.

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

Hostage diplomacy

Mr van Steirtegem said that in mid-December the family was informed by the Belgian Prime Minister and the Ministry of Justice that he had been sentenced to 28 years in prison.

He put the discrepancy with Tuesday’s sentence down to the arbitrary nature of Iran’s judiciary.

“I think that the extent of the punishment depends on how important the file is,” he said. “There is no rule of law in Iran.”

Iranian authorities did not publicise the sentencing in December.

Supporters of Mr Vandescasteele and rights groups have said for months that he is being held as part of Iran's "hostage diplomacy", an effort by Tehran to have Belgium release Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, 50.

He was found in guilty in 2021 of orchestrating a plot to blow up an event organised by an exiled Iranian opposition group outside Paris in 2018.

The plot was foiled by European intelligence services, and Assadi, a diplomat stationed in Austria who was identified as having provided the explosives for the bomb, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Prisoner swap treaty

Efforts to exchange the two men came to a halt in December when Belgium's Constitutional Court temporarily suspended a prisoner-swap treaty after exiled Iranian opposition members challenged it on the grounds it would lead to the release of Assadi.

The constitutional court said the suspension was in place pending a ruling on the legality of the treaty, which is considered as Mr Vandecasteele’s only possibility for freedom.

The ruling is expected, at the latest, on March 8, Mr van Steirtegem said.

“We are working now with our lawyers to convince the court to apply the treaty, which is a copy of 74 other treaties that Belgium has signed. There is nothing special about the one between Iran and Belgium,” he said.

Belgium signed the treaty after Mr Vandecasteele’s arrest.

Friends and family are organising an event in Brussels on January 22, three days after Mr Vandecasteele’s 42nd birthday, to drum up support for his liberation.

A petition launched in December by Amnesty International calling for Mr Vandecasteele’s release has so far received close to 45,000 signatures.

Mr Vandecasteele is an aid worker who has worked in Afghanistan and Iran, where he focused on supporting Afghan refugees.

Mr Vandecasteele “must absolutely be freed,” Mr van Steirtegem said. “We can’t let an innocent man die in prison.”

Updated: January 12, 2023, 6:55 AM