Iran, Belgium conduct prisoner swap freeing aid worker, diplomat

Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi and Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele freed, in deal facilitated by Oman.

People hold pictures of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele during a protest
People hold pictures of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele during a protest in Brussels, Belgium [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

Iran and Belgium have freed an aid worker and a diplomat imprisoned in each other’s countries, respectively, in a deal facilitated by Oman.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Friday that Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was heading back home, while Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele was also due to arrive in Belgium.

Earlier, the foreign ministry of Oman had said the freed individuals were transported from Brussels and Tehran to its capital, Muscat, in preparation for their return to their respective countries.

Amirabdollahian thanked Oman for its role in securing his release of Assadi.

“The innocent diplomat of our country, who was illegally detained in Germany and Belgium for more than two years against international law, is now on his way back to his homeland,” he wrote on Twitter.

In January, Iran had sentenced Vandecasteele to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes after convicting him of espionage in a closed-door trial. He also was fined $1m.

Vandecasteele had worked for a number of humanitarian organisations. The Belgian government and his family had vehemently denied Iran’s claims that he was a spy.

“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran. In unbearable conditions. Innocent,” De Croo said, describing the aid worker’s return to Belgium as “a relief for his family, friends and colleagues”.

In 2021, Belgium convicted Assadi of planning a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France. The courts sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

Belgian intelligence identified him as an officer of Iran’s intelligence and security ministry who operated undercover at the Iranian Embassy in Austria. Iran has denied Assadi’s involvement.

The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, whose rally was the bomb plot’s alleged target, accused Belgium of paying a “shameful ransom”.

“The release of the terrorist … is a shameful ransom to terrorism and hostage-taking. This will embolden the religious fascism ruling Iran to continue its crimes,” the group said in a statement.

Iran has jailed a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offences.

Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies