Iran released Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele on Friday after nearly 15 months in detention, as part of a prisoner swap for an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the 42-year-old had arrived in Oman and added: “If everything goes as planned, he will be with us tonight. Free at last!”
Separately, Oman’s foreign ministry said it had helped negotiate an “exchange deal” and that an Iranian previously detained in Belgium was on his way to Tehran.
Iran has announced that the released Iranian is diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was jailed in Belgium for a 2018 plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted that Assadi, “the innocent diplomat of our country…is now on his way back to his homeland and will soon enter our beloved Iran.”
He thanked Oman for its role in securing the release.
Belgium has always insisted that Vandecasteele was innocent and his trial was rigged. He was sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for “espionage”, the Tehran justice said at the time.
“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran in unbearable conditions. Innocent,” said de Croo.
“For me, the choice has always been clear. Olivier’s life has always come first. It’s a responsibility that I take on myself, that I accept. In Belgium, we don’t abandon anyone.”
Last year, Belgium and Iran signed a treaty to allow the exchange of prisoners.
– ‘Unbearable conditions’ –
Critics of the pact have alleged that it would only encourage Tehran to take Belgians hostage to use as bargaining chips to demand the return of operatives like Assadi arrested for terrorist offenses in the West.
An Iranian opposition group in exile, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which was the target of the 2018 bombing, challenged the treaty in Belgium’s Constitutional Court.
But Croo’s government insisted the deal was the only way to win Vandecasteele’s freedom, and in March the court upheld the treaty, clearing the way for Friday’s deal.
The NCRI reacted angrily to Belgium’s decision and claimed it violated the court order that intended victims of the bomb plot be consulted before any prisoner swaps under the treaty.
“The release of the terrorist…is a shameful ransom for terrorism and hostage-taking,” the group said.
Earlier this month, Iran freed a Frenchman, Benjamin Briere, and a French-Irish citizen, Bernard Phelan, but continues to hold two dozen foreigners whom Western capitals and families consider hostages.
Assadi was a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat who was arrested after passing explosives to a Belgian-based Iranian couple who were to travel to France to bomb an NCRI rally.
He was arrested in Germany while trying to return to Austria, and extradited to Belgium where he did not enjoy diplomatic immunity. He was found guilty of attempted “terrorist” murder and membership of a “terrorist group”.
Tehran angrily protested, but his sentence was upheld in May 2021 when Assadi chose not to appeal.