Belgian Aid Worker and Iranian Diplomat Freed in Prisoner Swap

Iran has released a Belgian aid worker jailed in Tehran for 455 days on charges of espionage in exchange for Belgium releasing a former Iranian diplomat who was convicted in 2021 of a botched bombing, officials from both countries said on Friday.

The aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, was flown on Thursday night from Tehran to Muscat, Oman’s capital, where the exchange took place, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday.

“Right now, our compatriot Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium,” De Croo said in a video address from Brussels, confirming that the government had secured Vandecasteele’s release. He added that Mr. Vandecasteele had undergone medical tests to assess his health after more than a year “in very difficult conditions.”

Mr. Vandecasteele had worked in Iran for five years until he lost his job in March 2021 and left the country. When he returned to retrieve some belongings in February last year, he was arrested by the Iranian authorities, who sentenced him to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of espionage, money laundering and currency smuggling. The Belgian government called Mr. Vandecasteele’s imprisonment arbitrary and said that Iran did not provide information on the case.

In exchange for Vandecasteele’s release, Oman negotiated the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who was arrested in Germany in 2020 on charges of planning to bomb a meeting of Iranian opposition leaders in France in 2018. The attack was frustrated. , but was later convicted in Brussels in 2021 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

published photos on Friday night by Mizan, a news agency overseen by Iran’s judiciary, appeared to show that Assadi had arrived in Tehran.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Friday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian thanked the Omani government for mediating the exchange and sending Mr. Assadi, “the innocent diplomat of our country, who was detained illegally in Germany and Belgium for more than two years against international law” back to Iran.

Belgium’s parliament approved a much-criticized treaty with Iran in July last year that allowed for the exchange of prisoners between the two countries. Critics of the treaty said the country was giving in to a form of blackmail from Iran, raising the risk of foreigners being taken hostage.

But on Friday, Belgian authorities said they had not used the treaty to negotiate Vandecasteele’s release, according to the Belgian news agency. Experts say, however, that Iran has used Westerners as pawns before.

“This has been a consistent policy of the Iranian government for decades, to use the hostage-taking of foreign nationals and dual nationals for its foreign policy objectives,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York. “Unfortunately, this continues to work for them,” he added, noting that each prisoner swap “only encourages the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to take more hostages.”

In a statement on Friday, Amnesty International applauded Vandecasteele’s release, but said it was “deeply disturbed” by the swap deal, which only perpetuated a “climate of impunity for the extraterritorial targeting of Iranian dissidents for extrajudicial killings, torture and other wrongdoing.” . treatment.”

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic, was freed in a 2020 exchange for three Iranian men who were jailed in Thailand for organizing a foiled plot to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012.

Earlier this month, Iran released two French nationals, Benjamin Brière and Bernard Phelan, after being charged with espionage. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratliffe, a British-Iranian, was released in March after being detained for 6 years as a diplomatic pawn, according to her family.

Mr. Ghaemi noted that the latest exchange took place against the backdrop of a rise in executions in the country. At least 209 people have been executed since January, according to the United Nations.

More than two dozen foreigners and dual nationals are still being held in Iranian prisons.

Koba Ryckewaert and Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.