Iran uses life of jailed academic to pressure Belgium over diplomat trial, lawyer claims

Ahmadreza Djalali was sentenced to death three years ago but his family fears his execution date is close

Swedish-Iranian national Ahmadreza Djalali, who formerly worked in Stockholm at a medical university, was arrested in Iran in April 2016.
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Tehran is seeking to put pressure on the Belgian government with veiled threats to execute an academic on the eve of a trial of an Iranian diplomat over a failed bomb plot targeting anti-regime dissidents, a lawyer in the case said on Thursday.

Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali – who has a guest professorship at a Brussels university – was sentenced to death three years ago but told his wife on Tuesday that he was being moved in apparent preparation for his execution.

The development came days just before Assadollah Assadi, 48, a Vienna-based diplomat, and three other alleged agents go on trial in the northern port city of Antwerp accused over a thwarted bomb attack on a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in June 2018.

Some 25,000 people attended the meeting in Paris but the plot was foiled after a pan-European police operation, prosecutors will claim on Friday.

“It doesn’t come as any surprise that Iran is trying to put pressure on the trial in releasing information that they have,” said Rick Vanreusel, a lawyer representing high-profile figures at the trial who attended the conference.

“Is this a threat? To me it comes across as a threat. I know there must be huge diplomacy behind the scenes and that’s out of our hands. Mr Djalali is the responsibility of the Iranian state.”

Five Dutch language universities – including VUB university in Brussels where Mr Djalali was a guest professor – called on governments to press Iran to stop the execution.

Mr Djalali, 49, formerly based in Stockholm where he worked at the Karolinska Institute, a medical university, was arrested during a visit to Iran in April 2016.

He was sentenced to death 18 months later after being found guilty of passing on information about two Iranian nuclear scientists to Israel's Mossad intelligence agency that had led to their assassinations.

The imprisoned academic's wife told news agency TT on Tuesday that her husband told her he was being moved to another prison where he would await his sentence in isolation, indicating an execution was imminent.

Mr Djalali, an expert in disaster medicine, claims that he is being punished for refusing to spy for Iran while working in Europe. He was granted Swedish citizenship in February 2018, while in prison.

The Belgian universities said they would no longer work with academic partners from Iran or start any new collaborations if their demands were not met.

Iran has been accused by families of detainees of falsely imprisoning dual and foreign nationals to exert pressure on governments to secure their foreign policy goals.

Families of jailed British-Iranian dual nationals claim their relatives are being held because of the UK’s failure to pay a four-decade debt over an aborted arms deal. The claim is denied by Tehran.

Sweden’s foreign minister Anne Linde went public with her concerns that the execution was imminent on Tuesday after contacting her Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif.

Iran responded by warning against all interference from Sweden. "The judicial power of the Islamic republic is independent,” Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

He said the information about Mr Djalali’s circumstances was both incomplete and false but did not elaborate.

Human rights group Amnesty International called on all countries to intervene, including through their embassies in Tehran, to save Djalali's life.

"It is appalling that despite repeated calls from UN human rights experts to quash Ahmadreza Djalali's death sentence and release him, the Iranian authorities have instead decided to push for this irreversible injustice," Diana Eltahawy, an Amnesty deputy director, said.