On Tuesday, Iran increased the prison sentence of Olivier Vandecasteele (41), a Belgian former aid worker who has been in prison in the country since early 2022, from 28 to 40 years and added 74 lashes as well as a $1 million fine. How did this happen and what is Belgium doing to free him?
Vandecasteele – who in 2015 became the director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)'s Iran operations before assuming the same role for Relief International in Iran from 2020 until July 2021 – was arrested by the country's authorities on 24 February 2022.
After being held for about ten months in an Iranian cell without knowing what the charges against him were, Vandecasteele was sentenced to 28 years in prison in December 2022 after what is widely considered a sham trial.
In early January 2023, Iranian media reported that the (almost certainly fabricated) charges against him are espionage, thwarting national security in the form of collaborating with the United States against Iran, as well as money laundering and smuggling. A few days later, the Belgian Ambassador to Iran was finally able to visit Vandecasteele in his cell, describing him as "even thinner" and "with deep bags under his eyes."
40 years, 74 lashes and $1 million
Now, that sentence was reportedly increased to 40 years, according to Iranian media: 12.5 years for collaboration with hostile governments, 12.5 years for espionage, 12.5 years for money laundering and 2.5 years for money smuggling. Additionally, Vandecasteele would also be fined $1 million and face 74 lashes.
However, that information from the Iranian press has not yet been officially confirmed to the Belgian Government, Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib announced via Twitter. "We will summon the Iranian ambassador today. Belgium continues to condemn this arbitrary detention and is doing everything possible to put an end to it and to improve the conditions of his detention."
Similar to VUB guest lecturer Ahmadreza Djalali (who is also being detained in Iran on made-up espionage charges), experts and diplomats suspect that Vandecasteele is being used by Iran as a kind of "political currency" to trade for Assadollah Assadi – a convicted Iranian terrorist who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium in February 2021 for his involvement in a foiled Paris bombing – in a prisoner swap.
However, the Constitutional Court has provisionally suspended that exchange deal on the grounds that it is illegal, as there is a chance that Assadi will escape punishment in Iran. A final ruling is expected in March.
As a result of his many months of detention in appalling conditions, Vandecasteele now has serious health problems and the United Nations recognised his inhumane treatment in Iran. It has started some procedures to obtain his release, and Amnesty International is also campaigning.
'What is Belgium doing?'
Olivier Van Steirtegem, a friend and spokesperson for the Vandecasteele family, told VRT the last ten months were an "emotional rollercoaster," while adding that the problem is not the verdict or the charges of the Iranian authorities.
"The problem is here in Belgium: what are we doing to get that hostage released? I would like to remind everyone that the US does not hesitate to release an arms dealer in exchange for one of its citizens," said Van Steirtegem, referring to the US swapping basketball player Brittney Griner for a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Boet. "Why does our country not do the same for its citizens?"
In the meantime, Federal MP for the Flemish rightwing N-VA party Theo Francken criticised the way Vandecasteele's situation is being portrayed in a Facebook post. "The Belgian government should try to get him released, but the whole debate deserves more nuance," he stated.
"With all due respect to the person involved and to Olivier Vandecasteele's family, people always forget exactly that he 1) no longer worked for that NGO, 2) travelled to Iran for private reasons (sale of flat) and 3) against very explicit and individual (!) advice from Foreign Affairs."
Francken underlined that he also wants Vandecasteele freed, but felt that this information was also important "for the completeness of the debate," adding that "someone who travels against very explicit and individual advice from Foreign Affairs anyway takes personal responsibility."
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For Van Steirtegem, Francken's comments are "ridiculous" as Vandecasteele had been working as a humanitarian for nearly 20 years and went there to pick up his stuff. "Just because you are a humanitarian worker does not mean you do not have a private life."
"It is normal to have a flat in the country where you live. Mr Francken apparently thinks that any Belgian travelling to Iran deserves a prison sentence and whipping," he said. "Well, congratulations on that opinion. I have never met an aid worker who travels to a safe country. They always go to countries with problems, for which official advice not to go there is issued. No, Olivier is a hostage."