Belgium offers hope to Evin inmate with Iran prisoner swap treaty

Regime opponents fear Olivier Vandecasteele deal could allow for release of jailed Iranian bomb plotter Assadollah Assadi

A guard keeps watch at Evin prison in Tehran, from where Belgian citizen Olivier Vandecasteele could soon be freed. Reuters
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Belgium has voted to ratify a prisoner swap deal that critics say would be giving in to Iranian pressure but which would lead to a jailed aid worker returning home.

Prime Minister Alexander de Croo's government regards the treaty as the only route to freedom for aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian citizen held in Evin prison in Iran.

Critics of the treaty, both Belgians and members of an exiled Iranian opposition movement, say Belgium is backing down in the face of hostage-taking by Tehran.

The opposition fears such a deal could pave the way for the release of jailed Iranian Assadollah Assadi, who is serving a 20-year jail term over a bomb plot in Europe.

After two days of rowdy debate, the Belgian Parliament voted by 79 to 41 to support the treaty, which had already won approval from a parliamentary commission on July 6.

Presenting the treaty “on the transfer of sentenced persons” to Members of the European Parliament this month, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne tried to isolate Assadi's case from its text.

Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi is accused of conspiring to blow up a dissidents' rally..US Embassy Iran 

But he admitted that as soon as the “so-called diplomat” Assadi was arrested, Belgium's interests and its 200 citizens in Iran became targets of potential reprisals.

“From day one, we have felt pressure from Iran and the security situation of our interests has deteriorated systematically,” Mr Van Quickenborne said.

Mr Vandecasteele, 41, was detained in Tehran by Iranian authorities at the end of February, apparently without any charge being made public.

On March 11, less than three weeks after his arrest, Belgium signed a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran — triggering claims it was ceding to “odious blackmail”.

“Iran is a rogue state but we don't choose who we talk to”, Mr Van Quickenborne told Belgian MPs. Freeing Mr Vandecasteele is “our priority”, he said at the time.

He warned MPs that any of the 200 Belgians still in Iran “could be next to be locked up” and stressed that Belgian intelligence believed that rejecting the treaty would increase the threat to those citizens.

Mr De Croo, who reacted with anger when criticised by opposition MPs for paying “a form of ransom”, said: “What do you tell his [Mr Vandecasteele's] family, that we are going to let him rot in his cell? Belgium does not abandon its citizens.”

Assadi, 50, was found guilty of orchestrating a terrorist plot that was foiled at the 11th hour in June 2018, when police officers arrested a Belgian-Iranian couple carrying explosives.

They were travelling to France to blow up an annual gathering near Paris of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of opponents of the Tehran regime.

A court in Antwerp ruled that Assadi had masterminded the plan on behalf of Iranian intelligence, under diplomatic cover as an envoy to Austria — and thus had no immunity in Belgium.

In a video message on July 11, Mr Vandecasteele's family urged authorities to “do everything” to secure his release, stressing his deteriorating physical and mental health after five months in jail.

Belgium's Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib insisted that the government had done everything it could to demand the aid worker's release through diplomatic channels.

Updated: July 21, 2022, 1:15 PM