Belgian aid worker and Iranian diplomat freed in prisoner swap deal


Iran has freed a Belgian aid worker who had been held on espionage charges, in return for the release of one of its diplomats accused of a foiled attempt to bomb a gathering in France of Iran’s opposition.

The pair were swapped on Friday in Oman following a deal mediated by the Gulf country. Aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who was arrested in 2022, had been sentenced to 40 years in prison while Iranian diplomat Asadollah Asadi was handed a 20 years sentence after being found guilty in Belgium in 2021 in connection with the 2018 bomb plot.

Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, said in a post on Twitter that the “innocent” Asadi was “on his way back home” and would return to the Islamic republic shortly.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday: “Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium. If all goes to plan, he’ll be with us this evening. Free at last.”

He said Vandecasteele had been flown to Oman on Thursday “where he was looked after by a team of Belgian soldiers and diplomats”. There he also went through medical examinations “to assess his state of health and to enable him to return in the best possible conditions”.

A prisoner exchange treaty between Belgium and Iran was struck in 2022 and upheld by Belgium’s constitutional court this spring. Belgium has rejected the Iranian charges against Vandecasteele, and De Croo on Friday reiterated the aid worker’s innocence.

Dozens of European nationals are believed to have ended up in Iran’s jails in recent years, according to western diplomats in Tehran, some to be later traded for Iranian prisoners held in other countries.

Asadi was high up on the list of people that Iran was keen to swap. So too is Hamid Nouri, a former Iranian judiciary official who was last year sentenced by a Swedish court to life in prison for committing war crimes. Iran is keen to swap him with a Swedish-Iranian national charged with spying for Israel, according to western diplomats.

At least three dual Iranian-US nationals have been held in Iran’s jails for a number of years. The Islamic republic has said they could be swapped with Iranian prisoners in America without clarifying who the Iranians are. Iran has also linked their release, Iranian analysts and western diplomats say, to the unfreezing of about $7bn of Iran’s petrodollars stuck in South Korean banks due to US sanctions.

Oman and Qatar have been trying to ease tensions between the Islamic republic and the west over the fate of jailed prisoners. Oman’s foreign ministry said earlier on Friday that a deal had been reached by which prisoners were taken from Tehran and Brussels to its capital Muscat to be repatriated. 

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