Iran diplomat skips opening day of bomb plot trial

The trial went ahead despite Assadollah Assadi, 48, refusing to appear in the dock, claiming diplomatic immunity.

Police officers are seen before a trial of Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, charged in Belgium with planning to bomb a meeting of an exiled Iranian opposition group in France [Johanna Geron/Reuters]

An Iranian diplomat went on trial in Belgium on the charge of plotting to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris, in a case that has stoked tensions with Tehran.

The trial kicked off on Friday despite Assadollah Assadi, 48, refusing to appear in the dock, claiming diplomatic immunity.

However, as he was arrested in Germany and his diplomatic accreditation was in Austria, Belgian prosecutors say they have the right to proceed.

Formerly based in Vienna, Assadi faces a 20-year prison term if convicted of being behind the attack that was thwarted in June 2018. Prosecutors requested the full sentence with no leniency.

The trial was to continue with the lawyer, Dimitri de Beco, representing his client.

Three others are on trial: a Belgian Iranian couple – Nasimeh Naami, 36, and Amir Saadouni, 40, accused of taking the bomb from Assadi to plant at the opposition gathering – and Mehrdad Arefani, 57, a Belgium-based Iranian poet allegedly in frequent telephone contact with the diplomat.

The three co-accused appeared in court. Prosecutors sought an 18-year term for the couple and 15 years for Arefani.

All four are charged with attempting to carry out an armed attack and taking part in the activity of an armed group.

Belgian lawyer Dimitri de Beco, who represents Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, speaks to media as he arrives at the court building in Antwerp, Belgium [Johanna Geron/Reuters]

After Friday’s session, the second part of the trial is scheduled to take place on Thursday. The court is then expected to adjourn to consider its verdict before ruling early next year.

The case shines an uncomfortable light on Tehran’s international activities just as it hopes for a thaw in relations with the West as United States President Donald Trump, who pulled Washington out of the Iran nuclear deal, is due to leave office.

In June 2018, Belgian authorities thwarted what they said was an attempt to smuggle explosives to France to attack a meeting of one of Iran’s exiled opposition movements which was attended by close Trump allies.

Later that year, the French government accused Iran’s intelligence service of being behind the operation, a charge the Islamic republic has furiously denied.

The National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which includes the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MEK), organised its rally in Villepinte outside Paris on June 30, 2018.

Several well-known international figures, including Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former British officials, as well as Franco-Colombian former Senator Ingrid Betancourt and NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi, were to attend.

On the day of the rally, Belgian police intercepted Naami and Saadouni driving from Antwerp with half a kilogramme (about 1.1 pounds) of TATP explosives and a detonator in their car.

Assadi was arrested while he was travelling through Germany where he had no immunity from prosecution.

Arefani, who had lived in Belgium for more than 10 years, was arrested in France in 2018 after Belgium issued a European arrest warrant.

“We can’t imagine the scale of the disaster averted,” said lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier, representing the NCRI, along with French colleague William Bourdon.

Outside the court, Bourdon declared: “It’s an unprecedented, historic trial. It’s the first time that, symbolically, the mullahs’ regime is in the dock.”

Counsel representing those targeted by the alleged attack say Arefani was close to Assadi, said to be the architect of the plot, and point to an Austrian SIM card found in his possession.

The two men deny any connection.

De Beco, Assadi’s lawyer, has accused the civil plaintiffs of trying to turn the case into a political trial on behalf of the opposition movement.

According to Iran expert Francois Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was surprised to learn about the failed attack.

“Visiting Europe at the time, he was absolutely furious to learn about this intelligence service operation,” the diplomat told AFP news agency.

At the time of the alleged plot, Rouhani was trying to maintain the support of European capitals for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which remains on life-support as European capitals try to keep Iran on board.

Source: News Agencies