Olivier Vandecasteele is free and on his way back to Belgium

Olivier Vandecasteele is free and on his way back to Belgium
An image of Vandecasteele ready to fly back to Belgium, posted on Prime Minister De Croo's Twitter page with the caption "With us at last". Credit: Alexander De Croo / Twitter

Humanitarian worker Olivier Vandecasteele is free and on his way to Belgium from Iran, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced on Friday.

Vandecasteele was detained for 455 days in an Iranian prison on alleged charges of espionage. He was transferred to the Omani capital Muscat on Thursday evening, where he was received by a team of Belgian military and diplomats.

“This morning he underwent a number of medical tests to check his health and ensure he can return as well as possible,” De Croo said in a video message. Vandecasteele, who worked for international NGOs in Iran for over six years, is expected to be back in Belgium on Friday evening.

"His return is a relief, for his family, friends and colleagues," De Croo added. "I also want to pay tribute here, personally and on behalf of the whole government, to the courage and strength of his family."

After months of negotiations on the release of Vandecasteele's release, an agreement was finally brokered by Oman. The news of his return to Belgium was also confirmed by the Omani Foreign Ministry on Friday, which referred to a mutual exchange deal.

Several Belgian politicians, including the country's Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib, welcomed the announcement and expressed gratitude to all parties involved in working towards his release, including Belgium's diplomatic and security services.

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne called it "a day never to be forgotten."

Prison swap

Vandecasteele was arrested in Iran on 24 February 2022. In what is widely regarded as a sham trial, he was sentenced in a sham trial to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes as well as a $1 million fine. The charges against Vandecasteele at the time were "espionage and undermining national security" – charges which were believed to be made up to pursue political interests.

In March, Iran indicated its willingness to carry out a possible prisoner swap between Vandecasteele and Assadollah Assadi, the diplomat sentenced to 20 years in jail in Belgium for plotting a terror attack.

According to Oman's foreign ministry, a prisoner exchange has now been agreed upon by both sides. De Croo did not elaborate on this in his message, but Iranian state media is reporting that Belgium has also freed Iranian diplomat Assadi, appearing to confirm the execution of the controversial prisoner swap.

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