Iran releases Belgian aid worker in controversial prisoner swap
Olivier Vandecasteele, the Belgian aid worker held for 455 days in Iran, has finally been released, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced on Friday (26 May).
The 42-year-old Belgian was released on Thursday night after a diplomatic battle with the Iranian regime, which was pushing for his return to be conditional on the freeing of an Iranian imprisoned in Belgium.
“As I speak, Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium. If all goes according to plan, he will be with us this evening. Free at last”, announced De Croo in an official statement, describing the humanitarian worker’s return as a “relief”.
Vandecasteele was taken into the care of Belgian soldiers and diplomats in the Sultanate of Oman and underwent medical examinations in the morning to assess his health.
The Prime Minister personally announced the release to the Vandecasteele family, whose courage he praised.
“In Belgium, we don’t abandon anyone. Least of all, an innocent person,” said De Croo.
On Twitter, the Belgian Foreign Minister described Vandecasteele’s detention as “arbitrary” and highlighted the “15 months of intense and discreet diplomacy”.
— Hadja Lahbib (@hadjalahbib) May 26, 2023
Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker, was arrested and imprisoned by the Iranian regime on 24 February 2022, the day on which, on the other side of the world, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
In March 2022, Belgium negotiated a prisoner exchange agreement with Iran that provided a legal means of transferring a person convicted in Iran to Belgium and would have allowed the swap of Vandecasteele for Iranian diplomat Assadolah Assadi.
Belgium courts convicted Assadi in 2021 for his role in planning a bomb attack that targeted the gathering in France of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a faction of the Iranian opposition abroad.
However, the NCRI and ten opponents to the Iranian regime requested to have the agreement annulled, resulting in the Belgian Constitutional Court suspending the deal in December on the grounds that Assadi could have been released once he returned to Iran.
Vandecasteele’s conditions of detention, which were already poor, deteriorated further in January after he was sentenced to 74 lashes and 40 years in prison for espionage and undermining national security. He was then transferred to Evin prison in Tehran.
The ruling was strongly condemned by the Belgian authorities and by the European Parliament in a resolution on the EU’s response to the demonstrations and executions in Iran, which referred to “fabricated ‘espionage facts’” and the Islamic Republic’s “cynical use of hostage diplomacy to secure the release of convicted terrorist Assadollah Assadi”.
At the start of March, the Belgian Constitutional Court rejected the appeal to annul the prisoner transfer treaty with Tehran, a decision that gave hope that the humanitarian would soon be released.
This treaty now allows Belgians detained in Iran to serve their sentence in their country of origin and Iranians detained in Belgium to do the same.
On 18 April, Belgium submitted an official request to the Iranian authorities to transfer Vandecasteele back home. Iran made the same request for Assadolah Assadi.
On Thursday, Iran finally exchanged Vandecasteele for Assadi.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian welcomed Assadi’s return to Iran on Twitter, thanking the Sultanate of Oman for its efforts in this regard.
Belgium officially requests aid worker liberation from Iranian jail
Belgian authorities on Tuesday filed an official request to transfer Olivier Vandecasteele, the Belgian aid worker who has been detained for over a year in Evin prison in Iran, back to his home country.
Last year, Belgium negotiated a prisoner swap …
Mixes reactions to Assadi’s release
In a statement published shortly after the announcement, the far-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang (Identity and Democracy) welcomed the release but expressed concern about the release of the Iranian Assadolah Assadi.
“I have asked Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open Vld) and his fellow Ministers of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open Vld) and Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib (MR) for clarification on the exact circumstances in which this happened,” said Vlaams Belang MP Ellen Samyn.
“If it turns out that the [Belgian] government was short-sighted enough to allow a terrorist to be released for this reason, it has opened the door to many new nightmares,” she continued.
According to the party, no conditions should have been attached to Vandecasteele’s release by the “rogue state” of Iran.
The Iranian opposition was also outraged by the release, with the NCRI describing it as a “shameful ransom for terrorism and hostage-taking”.
In addition, the Court had attached conditions to prisoner exchanges, specifying that the Belgian government must, when it takes a transfer decision, “inform the victims of the actions of the convicted person concerned so that they can effectively have the legality of the decision reviewed by the court of first instance”.
Darya Safai, a member of the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NV-A, European Conservatives and Reformists), also criticised the government for not informing Assadi’s victims of his release.
Iran releases French prisoners
On 12 May, two French nationals held in Iran – Benjamin Brière and Bernard Phelan – were also released, while Belgium was still negotiating the release of its only hostage in Iran.
Brière was arrested in May 2020 on espionage charges, while Phelan was arrested on 3 October 2022 for allegedly endangering national security.
According to a statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the two Frenchmen were released as part of a “humanitarian action”, which referred to “requests from the French side at various levels and after negotiations”.
Four French men and women are still being held in Iranian jails.