The alleged mastermind of a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in France is refusing to leave his prison cell because he feels he has already been convicted in a “political” trial, a Belgian court heard on Thursday.
Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian’ diplomat based in Vienna, is accused of planning an attack on a dissidents’ rally in June 2018 and of personally delivering the explosives to a husband and wife sleeper cell to carry out the bombing.
Mr Assadi has refused to appear before a court in Antwerp during two days of hearings but claimed through his lawyer that his rights were violated when he was handcuffed after his arrest at a German motorway rest area the day after that attack had been due to be carried out.
He has since been held in prison in Germany and Belgium unable to contact his wife in Iran, and his bank account has been frozen, his lawyer Dimitri De Beco told the court.
“He feels he has already been convicted, while in fact he is innocent until proven guilty,” said Mr De Beco. “He feels this is a political trial.
“He is convinced this trial is more about Iran than about him. He feels that this is a political trial he doesn't want to attend. So he has asked me to represent him in his absence.”
Mr Assadi’s defence came after the alleged bomber team claimed that the explosive device they were carrying would not have injured anyone and were duped by the diplomat.
Mr Assadi is accused of handing over the device at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg to Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36, to leave at the Paris rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) attended by 25,000 people. Prosecutors say the attack could have caused a bloodbath.
Mr Saadouni said he had no intention of leaving it inside the building but in a car park where it would have caused a loud bang but injured nobody.
He said he trusted Mr Assadi "when he said the package he gave us only contained fireworks".
"He brought his wife and children when he handed it over. Why would he risk the life of his loved ones by taking them while transporting an explosive?" he told the court.
The couple, from Antwerp, and Mr Assadi are on trial along with another alleged Iranian spy, Mehrdad Arefani.
The court heard of a telephone conversation between the couple after their arrest in which Ms Naami said she could never have hurt anyone. She said: “We’ve foolishly accepted this device and put it in our car. We have been so stupid.”
In an emotional appeal to the court, she said: "Terrorism. Bomb. I can hardly get these words across my lips. They have nothing to do with who I am or what I stand for."
Mr Saadouni denies that he was involved in a potentially deadly attack, and was convinced the bomb would only cause only a loud noise, his lawyer Wouter Smet said on the second day of the trial.
“He refused on multiple occasions to place the bomb in the conference hall,” Mr Smet told the court. “He only agreed to place the device in the parking area. He considered it was too dangerous to place the device near people.”
Lawyers for Mr Saadouni and his wife, who are naturalised Belgians, called for the pair to be acquitted of plotting a terrorist attack.
They were arrested on the day of the planned attack when armed police swooped on their car in a Brussels suburb as they headed from their Antwerp home to the convention centre on the outskirts of Paris.
The conference was attended by a host of dignitaries including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker in the US.
The conclusion of a two-year pan-European police investigation was that the planned bombing was a clear case of state-backed terrorism, prosecutors told the court.
Mr Assadi was said to be a veteran of the Iranian Ministry of Internal Security (MOIS) – currently under EU sanctions – who was in regular contact with his superiors in Tehran.
His lawyer said he could not be convicted as a member of a terrorist group. “I don't think this court can judge that MOIS - a ministry of a recognised state - is a terrorist organisation,” said Mr De Beco.
“I simply believe this court is not qualified to make these kinds of decisions. Yet, this is what the prosecutor is asking the court."
Iran has said it will not recognise any verdict by the Belgian court against the diplomat. The country’s foreign ministry says he is innocent and that he has been “conspired against”.
If Mr Saadouni is convicted, his defence lawyers asked that he could keep his Belgian passport because he would face the death penalty if he returned to Iran after spying on dissidents while an apparent supporter of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (MeK), the driving force behind the NCRI. Tehran considers the MeK a terrorist group and it has been banned since 1981.
“My client is hated by both sides,” Mr Smet said. “The MeK views him as an intruder, a liar.
“The Iranian regime sees him as a traitor, because he told the police everything about the strategies used by Iranian intelligence officers. If you revoke his Belgian passport, he would have to return to Iran. His return would equal the death penalty.”
Mr Smet said his client was relieved to be finally able to defend himself in court. “I admit he cried when he heard that Mr Assadi would not be present today,” he said.
“He was convinced Mr Assadi would confirm his story.”
Johan Platteau, defending Ms Naami, cast doubt that the explosive device would have caused a bloodbath as claimed by the prosecution.
“I have looked at photos showing the intervention [by police]. The bomb exploded when it was manipulated. Do we see a hole in the road? No. The asphalt is in perfect condition.
“The parked cars near the explosion are not damaged. Windows didn’t explode. Even the leaves that are on the ground didn't move. Would this explosive have caused a blood bath? I doubt it.”
The court will now consider its verdict after two days of hearings and a two-year police inquiry. It will deliver a verdict early next year.