A Belgian aid worker imprisoned in Tehran has been released after a prisoner swap with an Iranian diplomat who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in a plan to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris in 2018.
The release of Assadollah Assadi, who has just served a little more than two years into a 20-year prison sentence, will raise questions about whether Iran’s hostage diplomacy – the practice of seizing dual citizenship as a bargaining chip – Rewarded by the Belgian authorities. The final phase of the deal was negotiated by Oman, but Belgium has been in talks with Iran over the diplomat’s fate for longer.
Olivier Vandecasteele was arrested in February 2022 and his release was confirmed by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander DeCroo, who said the aid worker had been taken to Oman , accepted the medical examination of Belgian diplomatic personnel.
“Olivier spent 455 days in a Tehran prison. In unbearable conditions. Innocent,” Decreu wrote. “It is a relief that Olivier Vandecasteele is back in Belgium. His family, friends and colleagues are all relieved.” In a lengthy written statement, De Croo made no mention of the price paid for Vandecasteele’s release.
Vandecasteele, a longtime Iranian aid worker, was sentenced to a long prison term and 74 lashes after he was convicted of espionage in a closed trial. He was also fined $1 million. He apparently returned to Iran only briefly to retrieve some items.
The exchange has been particularly contentious since a Belgian court ruled in 2021 that Asadi had masterminded a thwarted bomb attack against an Iranian opposition group in exile in France and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors, working with French detectives, have shown that Asadi was linked to a couple who were stopped by Belgian police in 2018 in a Mercedes car where 550 grams (1.21 pounds) of TATP explosives and a detonator were found. They targeted a rally in Villepinte by the Mujahideen, an opposition group also known as the National Council of the Iranian Resistance.
Prosecutors say Asadi smuggled explosives on a commercial flight from Iran to Austria and then killed Amir Saadouni and his wife, Nasimeh Naami, in the The bomb was handed to them during a meeting at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg. Asadi was arrested the next day in Germany, where he was deemed unable to claim diplomatic immunity because he was on vacation and outside the country where he was sent.
Among the dozens of high-profile guests at the rally in Villepinte that day were former U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani; former conservative speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; and former Colombian president Candidate Ingrid Bettencourt. Five British MPs were also present, including former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers.
The judge in Antwerp summed up the case by saying: “This was supposed to be an attack on the democratic rule of law and freedom of speech. When the army bomb squad wanted to secure the bomb, it exploded. A robot was incapacitated. Thousands participated. A rally in Paris. It will lead to the death of many people from the explosion, but also the chaos that will follow.”
At the trial, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said: “There is no question of a prisoner exchange. We will not challenge the principles of our constitutional state.”
Georges-Henri Beauthier, a lawyer for the prosecution, said: “The ruling shows two things: that diplomats do not have immunity for criminal acts … and the responsibility of the Iranian state for what may have been a massacre.”
The path to a swap deal opened when Belgian lawmakers approved a controversial treaty with Iran in July that could allow Asadi to be returned to Tehran.Documents stolen from Iran’s foreign ministry show Belgium had been negotiating the treaty as early as 2021
Of the 131 MPs present, 79 voted in favor of the treaty, 41 opposed it and 11 abstained. The government insists it has not succumbed to blackmail or allowed Belgian citizens to rot in prison.