Iran-Belgium exchange deal aimed at freeing innocent Belgian NGO employee

Iran-Belgium exchange deal aimed at freeing innocent Belgian NGO employee
Credit: LinkedIn / Olivier Vandecasteele

A draft law on the transfer of imprisoned persons between Belgium and Iran is aiming to free another Belgian NGO employee who has been imprisoned in Iran without charge.

As well as the VUB guest lecturer Ahmadreza Djalali, who has been sentenced to death in Iran for alleged espionage, the 40-year-old Belgian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, has also been detained in Tehran since March De Standaard writes.

The draft law on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Committee concerns cooperation with India, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, and the “transfer of sentenced persons”. The bill, which would allow Belgium to exchange prisoners with Iran, will be discussed in the Belgian Parliament on Tuesday.

Belgian State Security fears that Iran is using Olivier Vandecasteele as ‘bait’, as former Iranian diplomat and terrorist Asadollah Assadi is imprisoned in Belgium, where he has been sentenced to 20 years. Assadi is the mastermind behind a foiled 2018 Paris bomb attack on a congress with an estimated 20,000 Iranians from the opposition party.

No accusations

Meanwhile, the Belgian NGO worker has not been officially charged with anything. State Security fears he was arrested by Iran to use as ‘bait’ for Assadi. Shortly after the man’s arrest, negotiations began between Belgium and Iran that would allow both countries to exchange prisoners.

Olivier Vandecasteele is in total isolation in prison. The family had contact with him once, but he doesn't have contact with his Iranian lawyers. He has lost a lot of weight and faces health issues because of the bad food, the family said.

The family also reports that the Belgian authorities are in contact with the Iranian authorities and that they have confidential contacts with the competent Belgian authorities on a regular basis.

The issue was raised by State Security on Monday afternoon during a briefing of the group leaders in the House. On Tuesday, the bill to ratify the treaty with Iran will be presented before the House Committee on Foreign Relations.

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The treaty should provide the legal basis to be prepared for all possible scenarios, including one involving Djalali. The intention is to vote on the text immediately so that it can be approved in the plenary.

Growing criticism

There have been massive protests over the past years, as more than 130,000 people in Belgium have spoken out for the release of Ahmadreza Djalali through petitions and other means.

However, with growing criticism of the treaty, it is not yet certain whether the majority will vote in favour of it.

Flemish Greens, Wouter de Vriendt, said: “The minister will have to pull out all the stops to convince us of this treaty, because it is by no means evident. Human rights guarantees are necessary, there should be no risk of arbitrariness.”

In the opposition, N-VA party leader Peter De Roover remains critical. “If we open the back door to a convicted terrorist, we are playing a dangerous game,” he says. “We are sending the signal that if you blackmail, you can get your way. We are now going to reward this behaviour.”

The Iranian opposition has also reacted negatively to a possible exchange with Assadi and has organised a demonstration on Tuesday morning. According to the opposition, Assadi will not spend another day in jail and will be “received as a hero” upon his return to Iran.

Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) sent a letter to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo signed by eight former distinguished UN and European judges, prosecutors, and human rights officials.

"This treaty’s adoption as law by the Belgian Parliament would effectively free Assadi from serving his sentence and would set a dangerous precedent and seriously weaken the rule of law in Europe," it reads.

JVMI argues that it would "encourage more Iranian terrorism on EU soil" and "reassure Iranian officials that they could evade responsibility for major international crimes".

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