A Brussels court ruled that convicted terrorist Assodollah Assadi may be extradited to Iran, thereby paving the way for a fiercely criticised prisoner exchange, local news reported.
The exchange would allow Assadi to be swapped with Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandeecasteele, who has been held in Iran since February, according to Het Nieuwsblad.
Critics of the deal, including both Belgians and the exiled Iranian opposition movement, have repeatedly pointed out that it opens the door to future Iranian hostage-taking.
In June, Belgian MPs ratified a deal to allow the exchange. At the time, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo argued that it was the only way to get Vandeesteele back home safely. Recently appointed Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib stresses that all diplomatic channels have been exhausted.
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Iranian exiles mounted a fierce campaign against the deal. Several parties, including the National Council for Resistance in Iran, challenged the possible extradition. An appeals court sided with them and imposed a temporary ban on the prisoner exchange deal in Belgium.
"The court has now declared the plaintiffs' question unfounded," said lawyer Khloë Georgiev, who represents Vandecasteele.
Assadi is in prison in Bevere after being sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Antwerp criminal court for his involvement in a foiled terrorist attack in 2018. The 50-year-old was detained at the last minute in June 2018 when Belgian forces arrested a Belgian-Iranian pair for carrying explosives.
The terrorists were en route to France to target an annual meeting in Paris of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a group opposed to the regime in Tehran.
The Antwerp court ruled that Assadi had been behind the plot working for Iranian intelligence, under the guise of a diplomat travelling to Austria and therefore had no immunity in Belgium. Tehran demanded that Belgium recognise Assadi's diplomatic status and let him go.
Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne admitted that when Assadi was arrested, Belgium's 'interests' and its 200 nationals in Iran could potentially be targeted as a response.
It is still unclear whether Assadi will be extradited. Prosecutors can appeal the Brussels court decision and new protests may rise up against the ruling.
Current events in Iran, which have been rocked by protests following the death of a young woman in police custody, could also be a factor in Assadi's possible extradition.