Belgian MPs call for official Iran trip in bid to free detained NGO worker

Olivier Vandecasteele’s sister gives emotional testimony to parliament, pleading for action, not words, to save her brother

A solidarity demonstration in Brussels for Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, whose health is failing in a Tehran prison. AFP
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Belgian MPs on Wednesday called on their country’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo and government representatives to travel to Iran to pressurise Iranian authorities to free Belgian citizen and NGO worker Olivier Vandecasteele.

He was sentenced last week to 40 years in jail and 74 lashes after 11 months in solitary confinement.

“It seems important that parliament, our government, our Prime Minister, go to Iran to signal strongly that our people want to see their fellow citizen again among us,” said MP Daniel Senesael, a member of the socialist party.

“We must all have the courage to continue to fight so that human dignity remains a value that we can wield with strength and conviction,” he added, addressing Mr Vandecasteele’s sister Nathalie.

Ms Vandecasteele gave an emotional testimony to the Belgian Parliament’s Commission for External Relations one day after MPs voted in support of a largely symbolic resolution calling for the immediate release of her brother, whose health is deteriorating.

The resolution, which was passed on the same day as UN experts said Mr Vandecasteele’s detention was a “flagrant violation” of international law, states the charges against him are officially unknown and that he did not have access to a lawyer of his choice during his “sham trial”.

The Mizan judiciary website on January 10 reported that 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.

“It’s like living in a nightmare that never ends,” his sister told MPs in Brussels.

Sobbing, Ms Vandecasteele asked them for “strong action on the part of Belgium” to free her brother.

The spokesman for her brother’s supporters, Olivier van Steirtegem, previously told The National that his detained friend 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.

MPs said they were moved by Ms Vandecasteele’s testimony.

“We must consider economic sanctions and dare conduct an on-site visit [to exert] maximum pressure,” said MP Catherine Fonck, a member of Les Engages, a centrist party.

The commission’s president, Els Van Hoof, said Belgian authorities must do more than verbally condemn Iran for what other MPs in the room described as a “hostage situation”.

But it remains unclear exactly what can be done to free Mr Vandecasteele, after the Belgian Constitutional Court in December suspended a prisoner swap treaty that was his supporters say was only option for freedom.

The suspension came after members of an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, challenged the treaty on the grounds that it would lead to the release of Asadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat detained in Belgium for his involvement in a failed bomb attack against the NCRI.

The court will give a final decision in the coming weeks.

The NCRI said in a statement that the Belgian government should prosecute in absentia Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei should Mr Vandecasteele be subjected to lashes.

Nathalie Vandecasteele sobbed as she gave Belgian MPs details of her brother’s plight. Photonews via Getty Images

The statement accused Iran of trying to blackmail the Belgian government into releasing a “terrorist-diplomat”.

Yet some MPs were doubtful that a trip to Tehran by Belgian officials to discuss Mr Vandecasteele’s release would be a good idea.

“If our Prime Minister or Foreign Affairs Minister goes to Tehran, they need guarantees that they’ll return home with results,” said Malil Ben Achour, also a member of the Commission for External Relations and a member of the socialist party.

“At this stage, they’d come back empty-handed,” he told The National.

European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, initially floated the idea of Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib going to Iran during an interview with local radio last week.

“It’s very important to be on the ground to create face-to-face contact,” said Mr Reynders, a former Belgian foreign minister.

Ms Vandecasteele was more cautious as she discussed this possibility with MPs.

“I don’t know if it’s the solution," she said. "You are more qualified than I am to answer this question.”

Updated: January 18, 2023, 7:31 PM