Belgium has officially submitted a transfer request to the Republic of Iran for Olivier Vandecasteele, the former aid worker who has been imprisoned in Iran since early 2022, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Hadja Lahbib said on Tuesday.
Vandecasteele was detained by Iranian authorities on 24 February 2022, when he was arrested for "espionage". Since August, he had been locked up in an unknown location but he was transferred to Evin Prison in Tehran ten days ago.
Meanwhile, his condition seems to be deteriorating and he is not getting enough food to keep him healthy, according to a statement sent by his family and friends. They hope that the transfer treaty with Belgium – which officially enters into force today – will now yield quick results.
"He is doing very badly," Olivier Van Steirtegem, the spokesperson for friends and family, told VRT after having been able to talk to Vandecasteele for ten minutes recently. "It is very difficult psychologically, after almost 14 months in isolation."
He also has excruciating muscle and nerve pain in his legs, making him unable to stand up straight and hardly sleep. "We do not know what is really going on, because he is not treated and we are not getting any more information."
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Lahbib told RTBF that the minister had once again pleaded for Vandecasteele's release during a new meeting with her Iranian counterpart. She also pleaded for the improvement of his detention conditions.
Vandecasteele was arrested on 24 February and held for about ten months in an Iranian cell without knowing the charges against him. He was initially sentenced to 28 years in prison in December 2022 after what is internationally denounced as a sham trial.
In January 2023, his sentence was 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.
Similar to VUB guest lecturer Ahmadreza Djalali (also detained in Iran on made-up espionage charges), experts and diplomats believe 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.
Belgium has been trying to secure his release through that transfer treaty, but the Constitutional Court initially suspended that exchange deal on the grounds that it is illegal, as there is a chance that Assadi will escape punishment in Iran.
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Appeals for the treaty to be annulled were considered but were rejected – meaning the treaty enters into force today. However, the Court did attach a condition to its ruling: Belgium must inform the targets of the foiled attack (the National Council of Resistance of Iran, NCRI).
Additionally, Vandecasteele's family and friends decry that no date has been announced for his return. "Perhaps Belgium will send an official message to Iran today, but that is only a first step. We have no confirmation of a timeline or schedule at all. We really need to become more effective."
"Olivier is completely exhausted," Van Steirtegem said. "He cannot remain the plaything of talks between two countries. His life is at stake: the lack of concrete action and quick results could put Olivier in an irreparable situation."