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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Iran: Belgian aid worker sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes

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Olivier Vandecasteele arrested on charges denounced as fake while on a visit to Iran in February last year

The distraught family of a Belgian national held in Iran have appealed to their government to do its utmost to get him freed after he was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges including spying that Brussels has denounced as fake.

The sentence imposed on aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, reported by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, was more severe than the 28-year-term Belgium had reported in December.

Vandecasteele was convicted of four charges including espionage against the Islamic Republic, cooperating with Tehran’s arch-foe the United States, currency smuggling and money laundering, Tasnim reported.

It said Vandecasteele, who was arrested while on a visit to Iran in February last year, could appeal the verdict within 20 days. Vandecasteele has denied all the charges.

Brussels and Tehran have been at loggerheads since the arrest of an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, who was sentenced in Belgium in 2021 to 20 years in prison for a planned “terrorist” attack against the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exile group opposed to the Islamic Republic, near Paris in June 2018..

In July, the Belgian Parliament had adopted a treaty on the transfer of convicts between Belgium and Iran, which was supposed to allow the return of Olivier Vandecasteele. But this treaty was suspended in early December by the Constitutional Court following numerous appeals by Iranian opponents in exile, fearing the return to Tehran and a possible pardon of Assadollah Assadi.

The Belgian foreign minister, Hadja Lahbib, condemned Vandecasteele’s “arbitrary detention” on Twitter and said Iran’s ambassador to Brussels would be summoned in protest at the sentencing.

“The family is devastated by the news,” said Olivier Van Steirtegem, who is Vandecasteele’s best friend and has been acting as the family’s spokesperson.

“Olivier is a victim, a hostage,” he told Reuters, adding that the Belgian government should do everything possible to free Vandecasteele and condemn Iran’s “hostage diplomacy”.

Indeed, the Iranian authorities have increased the number of arrests of foreigners or dual nationals in recent months, accusing Western countries of encouraging the Iranian people’s uprising since the death in detention in September of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian Kurdish woman who had been arrested for wearing the wrong veil.

In November, French Foreign Minister said that seven French nationals were being held in Iran and condemned a “diplomacy of hostages”.

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