Belgian-Iran treaty leaves Swedish-Iranian researcher in death cell

Belgian-Iran treaty leaves Swedish-Iranian researcher in death cell
Dr Ahmadreza Djalali before his arrest on 26 April 2016 in Iran where he was sentenced to death. © Facebook

The treaty between Belgium and Iran on the transfer of convicted persons was adopted on Wednesday last week by the Belgian federal parliament with a majority of 79 in favor, 41 against and 11 abstentions but its application for persons related to Belgium is still unclear.

As already reported, the Belgium-Iran treaty can be seen as a standard treaty allowing Iranians convicted in Belgium to serve their sentences in their home country, and vice versa, according to the conditions specified in the treaty. Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne explained in the debate that Belgium has this kind of treaty with more than 70 countries in the world.

“Do other European countries have a treaty with Iran? France has an extradition treaty with Iran. There are also other democracies in the world that have a treaty with Iran. We have a similar treaty with other regimes that not taking so much care of human rights, namely with Russia and China.”

The treaty was considered controversial because it appears to condone “hostage diplomacy”. The debate in the full plenary continued for hours and finished at midnight when Belgium’s National Day started.

The US has already reacted against the treaty. Belgian newspapers reported on Monday that the US might intervene in a prisoner exchange deal between Iran and Belgium if it would involve the Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadi. He has been convicted by a Belgian court to 20 years in prison for his role in a failed terrorist attack against a gathering in Paris of the Iranian opposition. Instead, the US may request his extradition.

The treaty does not refer to any individual cases but the Belgian citizen which might be the first one to benefit from the treaty is Olivier Vandecasteele, a graduate of KU Leuven and aid worker for the Norwegian Refugee Council and currently Relief International, where he works as Country Director for Iran.  He was arrested on 24 February when visiting Teheran, accused of spying, but has not been sentenced yet for any crime.

Van Quickenborne himself referred to a meeting with the close family and best friend of Vandecasteele. “They told us with tears in their eyes how scandalously badly he is treated in the infamous Eving prison in Teheran. He has been sleeping there on the floor for months. He is there in solitary confinement with light that never goes out. He has lost sixteen kilograms, he is sick.”

In defending the treaty, the justice minister underlined that the government has the responsibility to protect Belgians abroad against unlawful persecution, imprisonment, inhumane treatment and torture.

He also disclosed the figures. There are currently 25 convicted Iranians in prison in Belgium. In Iran, one innocent Belgian compatriot is currently in prison (Vandecasteele). In total there are more than 200 Belgians present in Iran and any one of them could be next, he said. “This is a treaty with a rogue state but we don't choose the regimes we have to talk to.”

The other person in Iranian prison and related to Belgium is Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish – Iranian guest lecturer at VUB in Brussels. He was arrested on 26 April 2016 by the Iranian security police when visiting Teheran to participate in a workshop in disaster medicine.

Djalali, today 51, and married with two children, was accused of cooperation with hostile states and espionage for Israel but no evidence was ever presented to support the allegations. He was sentenced to death on 21 October 2017. UN observers stated that the trial was unfair and called on Iran to cancel the death sentence and release Djalali. Iran threatens that his execution is imminent.

He was only mentioned by the justice minister in passing. Referring to a statement in 2017 by Geert Bourgeois, a former Flemish Minister-President, he said that “sanctions against Iran will not free Djalali”.

In fact, a spokesperson of the Belgian ministry of justice told The Brussels Times after the proposed treaty was approved by the parliament’s foreign affairs committee that it applies to Belgian citizens only. Djalali has double Swedish-Iranian citizenship and it would be first of all Sweden’s responsibility to ensure his release.

Hadja Lahbib, the new Belgian minister of foreign affairs, said in her first plenary debate that the debate probably was the most exciting and passionate one this year. She also mentioned the innocent Belgian fellow citizen and told that the Iranian ambassador to Belgium has been summoned five times since Vandecasteele’s arrest. Each time, Belgium has requested that he should be released.

She disclosed that the treaty was signed already on 11 March following technical negotiations at the administrative and diplomatic levels between the two countries. She confirmed that individual cases at that stage were not discussed.

According to the foreign minister, the treaty “can be an instrument to help convicted Belgians, irrespective if they are Belgian travelers or residents” but she did not explain what she meant. ‘Resident’ could refer to a non-Belgian national who has established his domicile in Belgium and is registered in a municipal population register.

The two ministries, justice and foreign affairs, declined to reply to a request for clarification from The Brussels Times and referred to the interventions by the ministers. The foreign minister mentioned in her speech the recent Swedish court ruling against a former Iranian official but did not wish to comment on the possible consequences that this could have for Djalali’s fate.

The Swedish ministry of foreign affairs declined to comment on whether it had contacted its Belgian counterpart to clarify Djalali’s status as guest researcher in Brussels and referred to the Belgian authorities.

Director of Amnesty International Flanders, Wies De Graeve, told the Brussels Times that he could not comment on Djalali’s legal status in Belgium. The treaty is applicable to sentenced Belgian citizens in Iran, he said, but that did not exclude a political decision on a prisoner swap. Djalali is used as a hostage or bargain clip by Iran and should be released irrespective of his status. An Amnesty International petition for Djalali’s release has gathered nearly 140,000 signatures in Belgium.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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