Iran released Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele on Friday after nearly 15 months in custody, in a prisoner exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the 42-year-old had arrived in Oman, adding: “If everything goes according to plan, he will be with us tonight. Free at last!”
Separately, Oman’s foreign ministry announced it had helped broker an “exchange agreement” and that an Iranian previously detained in Belgium was on its way to Tehran.
Iran announced that the released Iranian is diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was imprisoned in Belgium over a 2018 plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted that Assadi, “our country’s innocent diplomat… 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 maintained that Vandecasteele was innocent and that his trial had been manipulated. He was sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for “espionage,” Tehran’s judiciary said at the time.
“Olivier spent 455 days in Tehran in unbearable conditions. Innocent,” De Croo said.
“For me, the choice has always been clear. Olivier’s life has always come first. It is a responsibility that I take on, that I accept. In Belgium, we don’t let anyone down.”
Last year, Belgium and Iran signed a treaty to allow prisoner exchange.
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Critics of the pact claimed it would merely encourage Tehran to hold Belgians hostage for use as bargaining chips to secure the return of operatives like Assadi who had been arrested for terror crimes in the West.
An exiled Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which was the target of the 2018 bomb plot, has challenged the treaty in Belgium’s constitutional court.
But De Croo’s government insisted the deal was the only way to win Vandecasteele’s freedom, and in March the court upheld the treaty, paving the way for Friday’s deal.
The NCRI reacted angrily to Belgium’s decision, claiming that it violated the court’s order that the intended victims of the bomb plot should be consulted before any prisoner exchange took place under the treaty.
“The release of the terrorist … is an embarrassing ransom for terrorism and hostage-taking,” the group said.
Earlier this month, Iran released a Frenchman, Benjamin Briere, and French-Irish citizen Bernard Phelan, but is still holding two dozen foreigners who are considered hostages by Western capitals and families.
Assadi was a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat who was arrested after passing explosives to a Belgium-based Iranian couple who were to travel to France to bomb an NCRI meeting.
He was arrested in Germany when he tried to return to Austria and extradited to Belgium, where he did not enjoy diplomatic immunity. He was convicted of attempted “terrorist” murder and membership of a “terrorist group”.
Tehran protested angrily, but his sentence was upheld in May 2021 when Assadi chose not to appeal.