'Complete fiasco': Belgian-Iranian prisoner swap suspended

'Complete fiasco': Belgian-Iranian prisoner swap suspended
Credit: LinkedIn / Olivier Vandecasteele

The Constitutional Court has suspended the treaty allowing an exchange of Belgian and Iranian prisoners, which would have allowed the transfer of a convicted Iranian terrorist (held in Belgium) as well as that of Olivier Vandecasteele, the Belgian aid worker detained in Iran.

In February 2021, Iranian terrorist Assadollah Assadi was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium for his involvement in a foiled Paris bombing. Now, the court ruled that the treaty to swap him for Vandecasteele was illegal because there was a chance that Assadi would escape punishment in Iran.

"Belgium knows or should know that Iran will not actually carry out the sentence," the court ruled. But according to the European Court of Human Rights, the Belgian state must ensure that Assadi's sentence is actually carried out.

The suspension of the treaty is only an interim decision while the Constitutional Court investigates the case further. A decision on a possible final annulment will come in the next three months. Had the swap been carried out and Assadi had been released in the process, it would have been bad news for the ten people who stood against him in trial, their lawyer Rik van Reusel told VRT.

Extraditing terrorists to terrorist regimes

"My clients are not happy but they are relieved. The Constitutional Court puts a stop to a kind of extradition diplomacy that would mean impunity for Iranian terrorists in our country," Reusel said. "The Court now says that by extraditing terrorists to terrorist regimes, you undermine your own rule of law."

However, the judgment also shows that Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele (detained in Iran since February this year) was a factor in the proceedings as there was talk that Assadi's extradition to Iran could have enabled Vandecasteele's return to Belgium.

The suspension now prevents Vandecasteele from being repatriated. "Olivier is now sentenced to 10, 15, 20 years in an Iranian cell," his friend Olivier Van Steirtegem told VRT, adding that Vandecasteele's family is very upset by the decision.

"They have been trying to settle this with the Belgian government for nine months. This was the only way to bring Olivier back to Belgium. Now it turns out to be a complete fiasco."

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Prime Minister Alexander De Croo urged all parties to remain calm. The ruling will first be debated in the House of Representatives before anything is actually carried out, he said. Yet the opposition in the Parliament stated that the Court's decision is proof that the treaty is duplicitous.

"The Court confirms what we tried to make clear to the De Croo government: this treaty is the result of pure blackmail by a criminal regime," said N-VA group leader Peter De Roover, adding that the treaty cannot be applied to Vandecasteele in any case "because he is in prison in Iran but has not been convicted there."

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