Iran state media says diplomat jailed with insufficient evidence

State media says Belgium has sentenced Asadollah Assadi to a 20-year prison sentence in a politicised case.

Heavily armed policemen patroll outside the courthouse during the trial of four persons including an Iranian diplomate and Belgian-Iranian couple before the Antwerp criminal court in Antwerp, on February 4, 2021. - A Belgian court returns a verdict on February 4, 2021, in the trial of an Iranian diplomat accused of plotting a bomb attack against opposition activists meeting in France. Assadollah Assadi, a 49-year-old formerly based in Vienna, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of plotting to target the June 30, 2018 rally. The gathering in Villepinte outside Paris included senior leaders of the exiled National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) and some high-profile supporters.
Armed police were present outside the Belgian court Assadi was convicted in, with protesters also gathered outside [File: Dirk Waem/Belga/AFP]

Tehran, Iran – Iranian state media says Belgium sentenced an Iranian diplomat to a 20-year prison sentence with insufficient evidence, in what they have branded a politicised case.

Asadollah Assadi, the third secretary of Iran’s embassy in Austria, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in February 2021 by a court in Antwerp, Belgium.

Assadi, 50, was accused by the Belgian authorities of organising – on behalf of Iranian intelligence – three accomplices to plant a bomb at a gathering of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (also known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK), a Europe-based opposition group, in Villepinte near Paris in June 2018.

Assadi was found guilty by a Belgian court and sentenced to 20 years.

The sentence was confirmed in May 2021 after Assadi refused to file an appeal, as he has contested the legitimacy of the Belgian justice system.

State-run IRNA news agency last week said Asadollah Assadi’s trial and sentencing was “a completely preplanned scenario” built on shaky grounds. The semi-official Tasnim news agency published a similar report in which it said that the MEK had framed Assadi.

“Based on reports from Assadi’s attorney, the role of this terrorist organisation [MEK] in forging a case against the Iranian diplomat is evident – especially as it came when Iran’s president was on a visit to Austria,” Tasnim said, referencing former President Hassan Rouhani’s July 2018 trip to the European country.

Both outlets published images of purported evidence and sought to portray how the MEK was involved.

Iran has designated the organisation a “terrorist” group, after the group carried out bombing attacks and assassinations, as well as attacking Iran with military help from Saddam Hussein during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Assadi’s alleged accomplices, 41-year-old Amir Saadouni, 37-year-old Nasimeh Naami, and 58-year-old Mehrdad Arefani, have testified against him. Assadi has maintained that he does not know them.

Belgian authorities say Saadouni and Naami, a Belgian couple of Iranian origin, were carrying 500 grammes of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosives and a detonator in their vehicle on their way to Villepinte at the time of their arrest in Belgium in 2018.

Arefani was arrested simultaneously in Villepinte. At the request of Belgian authorities, Assadi was arrested in Germany, where he did not have diplomatic immunity.

The most recent development in the case came earlier this month when a Belgian court dismissed the three alleged accomplices’ appeals.

The court upheld Naami and Arefani’s respective sentences of 18 and 17 years in prison and increased Saadouni’s sentence from 15 to 18 years.

“Everything was meticulously prepared beforehand and the modus operandi to be used was also discussed in detail,” the court said, according to Belgian media, also ruling there was no doubt that Assadi and the three alleged accomplices worked for Iranian intelligence.

MEK claims

The Iranian media outlets have said the alleged accomplices were agents of the MEK, a claim the organisation has previously denied.

But MEK supporters regularly staged gatherings and protests in front of Belgian courts where the defendants were present, had a delegation present in the court, and called on authorities to close down Iranian embassies and expel diplomats.

The semi-official Tasnim website published images purportedly showing Saadouni and Naami at an undated MEK rally.

It also published purported court documents showing that Assadi argued during his court sessions in Antwerp that the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the umbrella organisation of the MEK, is a “terrorist” organisation.

According to the documents, the court ultimately ruled that it should not make an assessment about the moral grounds of the organisation since “neither the organisation nor its sister organisations are on trial here”.

Tasnim also pointed to events in 2003 when, under orders, several MEK members self-immolated in various European capitals to protest the arrests of their leader Maryam Rajavi and others on charges of money laundering and fraud that were ultimately dropped.

The European Union and the United States previously listed MEK as a “terrorist” organisation. After promising to renounce violence, it was delisted by the EU and the US in 2009 and 2012 respectively.

Iran questions evidence

Meanwhile, the Iranian government’s website has published the image of a purported German police report detailing items found in Assadi’s vehicle when he was arrested in Bavaria while on holiday.

The report makes no mention of residue from an explosive device, whereas IRNA said the TATP Assadi had allegedly passed to his accomplices should have left a trace.

When contacted by Al Jazeera, the Bundeskriminalamt – the German Federal Criminal Police – neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of the report, saying it cannot disclose information about the case to third parties.

IRNA also claimed that no traces of explosives or illegal possessions were found at Assadi’s residence in Vienna.

The outlet also referenced a 2019 interview with the Osterreich Heute newspaper, in which an Austria Airlines spokesperson denied claims by Belgian authorities that Assadi had carried bomb components in a diplomatic case on board a commercial plane.

The Austrian foreign ministry was contacted by Al Jazeera for comment on this story but did not respond.

However, an Austria Airlines spokesperson told Al Jazeera that their spokespersons from 2019 are no longer with the company, so they cannot confirm or deny whether the interview took place. They declined to comment on the company’s current stance on the claims made by the prosecutor in Assadi’s Belgian court case. 

Lastly, IRNA published images that purported to show the Belgian intelligence and security service had tried to hack and gain access to Assadi’s administrative email address, which belongs to the Iranian foreign ministry.

A spokesperson for the Belgian foreign ministry told Al Jazeera: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs won’t be reacting to this story”.

Strained relations

The case of Assadi and the allegation that Iranian intelligence was behind the bombing plot continue to strain Iran’s relations with European countries, some of which are also involved in efforts to restore Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran has repeatedly condemned European countries for hosting the MEK, which moved its base from Iraq to Albania during the last decade and holds events across the continent.

For its part, the Iranian foreign ministry has maintained that Assadi’s case constitutes a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, as Iran claims Assadi was an innocent diplomat who was arrested despite his diplomatic immunity. However, as Belgian authorities found Assadi guilty of organising a bomb plot, they do not believe he should enjoy diplomatic immunity.

Iran also summoned Belgium’s envoy in Tehran after Assadi’s arrest to express its strong condemnation in February 2021.

Several European countries have condemned the arrest of their citizens or dual nationals of Iranian origin over the past few years, mostly on charges related to espionage, denouncing the charges as arbitrary.

Earlier this month, France strongly condemned the arrest of two of its citizens on charges of fomenting teachers’ protests.

Another ongoing contentious case involves prisoners in Iran and Sweden.

Iranian-born Swedish academic Ahmadreza Djalali is awaiting execution in Iran on charges of spying for Israel leading to the assassination of nuclear scientists.

Iranian officials have ruled out an exchange of prisoners, saying Djalali’s sentence is “final”.

Amnesty International said there was mounting evidence Iran was keeping Djalali hostage in an effort to force Belgium and Sweden to hand over Assadi and another ex-official, Hamid Nouri.

“The Iranian authorities are using Ahmadreza Djalali’s life as a pawn in a cruel political game, escalating their threats to execute him in retaliation for their demands going unmet,” Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa said on May 19.

Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign ministry earlier this month summoned Sweden’s envoy to strongly protest a life imprisonment sentence for ex-official Hamid Nouri, who is accused of human rights abuses.

Source: Al Jazeera