Protesters in Brussels demand Iran frees jailed Belgian Olivier Vandecasteele

Family hope public pressure for his release will push Belgian authorities to find a quicker solution

People gather in Brussels on Sunday to protest against the detention of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele in Iran. EPA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in freezing temperatures in Brussels on Sunday to urge Belgium to intensify efforts to secure the release of aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who is in jail in Iran.

Condemning the case as "hostage diplomacy", the crowd chanted "Free Olivier" and sang Happy Birthday to mark Mr Vandecasteele's 42nd birthday this week.

"The aim is to show the government that we cannot leave an innocent person there," his sister Nathalie told AFP.

Olivier Van Steirtegem, a spokesman for the family, insisted that "every minute, every second counts" and that they hoped growing public pressure for his release would push the Belgian authorities to find a solution more quickly.

Iran arrested Mr Vandecasteele in February 2022, and he has since been held in conditions that Belgium's government has described as "inhumane".

The authorities sentenced him this month to more than 12 years behind bars for "espionage", and to 74 lashes.

UN rights experts have condemned Mr Vandecasteele's detention as a "flagrant violation" of international law.

His backers and rights groups say he is being held as part of Iran's "hostage diplomacy" to get Belgium to release an Iranian diplomat jfor terrorism.

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

People gather in Brussels on Sunday to protest against the detention of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele in Iran. EPA

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.

In July last year, Belgium and Iran signed a prisoner-swap treaty that Brussels considered to be way to free Mr Vandecasteele.

But Belgium's Constitutional Court suspended the treaty after exiled Iranian opposition members challenged it on the grounds that it would lead to the release of Assadi.

The court said the suspension was in place pending a ruling on the legality of the treaty.

The Belgian government insists it is doing "all it can" to have Mr Vandecasteele released and says it has strengthened its legal team to plead the case.

Updated: January 22, 2023, 8:11 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS