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Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

Iran has been holding a Belgian man for the past four months under trumped-up “espionage” charges, Belgium’s justice minister said Tuesday, as his country weighed a controversial prisoner swap treaty with Tehran.

The Belgian, a humanitarian aid worker, was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in “illegal” detention since, the minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, told MPs.

MPs and the Belgian man’s family identified him as Olivier Vandecasteele, 41.

A relative told AFP that Vandecasteele had lived in Iran from 2015, when he worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council and then another NGO, Relief International, before returning to Belgium last year after a contract was ended.

He returned to Tehran under a tourist visa in February, was seized several days later and taken to Iran’s infamous Evin prison, where he was being held in solitary confinement.

Quickenborne said officials from Belgium’s embassy in Tehran had twice visited the jailed Belgian to give all possible assistance.

Rights groups and media outlets covering Iran said it appeared to be another case of Tehran grabbing hostages to exchange for Iranians incarcerated in the West.

Several are held in Evin, in a wing run by the intelligence service of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Among them is a Swedish academic who also holds Iranian citizenship, Ahmadreza Djalali, who taught at a Brussels university. Iran also applied “espionage” charges to Djalali and has sentenced him to death.

Belgium last year convicted and imprisoned an Iranian diplomat for 20 years for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris in 2018.

Belgium’s parliament on Thursday is to vote on whether to ratify a bilateral treaty with Iran that would open the way for prisoners in each country to be repatriated.

Quickenborne on Tuesday said as he presented the proposed treaty to MPs for debate that “if the bill is not fully approved, the threat to our Belgian interests and certain Belgian citizens will increase”.

Some US lawmakers, however, are pressing Belgium to ditch the proposed treaty, which was signed in March.

One, Randy Weber, a Republican representative in Texas, tweeted he was “shocked to find out that the Belgian gov has cut a deal with the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism and plans to send Iranian terrorists back to Iran to plot more terroristic acts”.

– ‘Terrorist’ diplomat –

The imprisoned Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, 50, was found guilty by a Belgian court in February 2021 of attempted “terrorist” murder and “participating in the activities of a terrorist group”.

He supplied explosives for a bomb attack on a June 30, 2018 event outside Paris held by the dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) group.

Information supplied by several European intelligence services allowed Belgium to thwart the attack by intercepting the car carrying the bomb.

A two-year investigation into the plot determined that Assadi was an Iranian agent operating under diplomatic cover.

Assadi was arrested in Germany, where his claim to diplomatic immunity was denied because he was attached to Iran’s embassy in Austria, and extradited to Belgium for trial.

He opted not to appeal against his sentence. Tehran has protested his conviction.

Lawyers for the NCRI, whose core is made up of a militant organisation known as the MEK, said the proposed Belgium-Iran treaty was designed to allow Assadi to go back to Iran.

The controversy in Belgium over the treaty comes as European powers are trying to bring Iran and the United States back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.

That pact was badly weakened when former president Donald Trump pulled the United States out in 2018.

Iran has since leapt ahead with its uranium enrichment to a level putting it close to the point where it could produce nuclear weapons.