Belgium in Brief: National relief for Vandecasteele

Belgium in Brief: National relief for Vandecasteele

Something rather amazing happened in Belgium today, a thing that the country has hoped for in unison but that many feared would never come to pass. In a national address on Friday morning, Prime Minister De Croo announced that the Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele has been freed from Iran and is en route to Belgium.

For those not familiar with his case, Vandecasteele has been held for 455 days on trumped-up charges of espionage. He has been due to face 74 lashes, 40 years in prison, and a $1 million fine. With a verdict so grim, his only realistic chance of release was with intervention from the Belgian State, and a protracted prisoner swap was brokered that has now seen Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi released from prison in Antwerp, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for plotting a bomb attack against a rally of Iranian political opponents near Paris.

Yet the deal has at various points hung by a thread, with its judicial ramifications repeatedly called into question. Throughout this time, the public awareness and wish for Vandecasteele's freedom was kept alive by his friends and family – his niece even locked herself in a cage for 24 hours to draw attention to the struggle.

The aid worker's image has been spread across the country, looking down from oversize advert panels or printed on stickers that can be found in almost any bar. Those not in the know might even assume that this is some totem of pop culture akin to musicians or sportsmen.

The Prime Minister earlier today shared an image of our man looking out from a military aircraft soon to take him home; it was a changed man from the face looking hopefully down from posters adorning public buildings around Belgium. But, quite remarkably given the deprivations inflicted upon him, he was still standing.

Vandecasteele is no question immensely fortunate. Sceptics might have assumed that his name would be just another on the ledger of those brutally done away with by the state that is famed for its disregard for human rights.

It's a country where capital punishment awaits those charged with such offences as political dissidence, homosexuality, or any other transgression out of line with the Islamic theocracy under the autocratic clutch of its supreme leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei. State executions are systematic and come in their hundreds each year. The number of political opponents that die under state suppression is far higher.

Today the nation will release a long-held sigh of relief for its compatriot, safe at last.

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2. Olivier Vandecasteele is free and on his way back to Belgium

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