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Belgium summons Iran envoy after aid worked sentenced to 40 years, lashes

Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, has been detained in an Iranian prison for months and has been on a hunger strike; his family says he is suffering from serious health problems

Protesters wear clothes reading 'Free Olivier' during a solidarity demonstration with Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele in Brussels on December 25, 2022. (François Walschaerts/AFP)
Protesters wear clothes reading 'Free Olivier' during a solidarity demonstration with Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele in Brussels on December 25, 2022. (François Walschaerts/AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Belgium has urged its nationals to leave Iran, warning that they face the risk of arbitrary arrest or unfair trial, after the Islamic Republic sentenced a Belgian aid worker to a lengthy prison term and 74 lashes after convicting him of espionage charges in a closed-door trial.

“Iran has provided no official information regarding the charges against Olivier Vandecasteele or his trial,” Belgium’s Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said in a statement.

“We will summon the Iranian ambassador today, given the information that is circulating in the press,” she added. “Belgium continues to condemn this arbitrary detention and is doing everything possible to put an end to it and to improve the conditions of his detention.”

Earlier Tuesday, the website of Iran’s judiciary said a Revolutionary Court sentenced 41-year-old Olivier Vandecasteele to 12.5 years in prison for espionage, 12.5 years for collaboration with hostile governments and 12.5 years for money laundering. He was also fined $1 million and sentenced to 2.5 years for currency smuggling.

Under Iranian law, Vandecasteele would be eligible for release after 12.5 years. The judiciary website said the verdicts can be appealed.

Vandecasteele’s family said last month that he has been detained in an Iranian prison for months and has been on a hunger strike. They said he was deprived of access to a lawyer of his choice and is suffering from serious health problems.

Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offenses and sentencing them after secretive trials in which rights groups say they are denied due process. Critics accuse Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West, something Iranian officials deny.

Iran has not released any details about the charges against Vandecasteele. It is unclear if they are related to anti-government protests that have convulsed Iran for months or a long-running shadow war with Israel and the US marked by covert attacks on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

Lawyers and family of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, imprisoned in Iran, hold a press conference in Brussels on December 9, 2022. (Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga/AFP)

The nationwide protests began after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained for allegedly violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress code. Rallying under the slogan “Women, life, freedom,” the protesters say they are fed up with decades of social and political repression. Iran has blamed the protests on foreign powers, without providing evidence.

The protests, which have continued for nearly four months with no sign of ending, mark one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution that brought it to power.

At least 520 protesters have been killed and more than 19,300 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the unrest. Iranian authorities have not provided official figures on deaths or arrests.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s morality police, on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

Iran has executed four people after convicting them of charges linked to the protests, including attacks on security forces. They were also convicted in Revolutionary Courts, which do not allow those on trial to pick their own lawyers or see the evidence against them.

London-based Amnesty International has said such trials bear “no resemblance to a meaningful judicial proceeding.”

Norway and Denmark summoned Iranian ambassadors this week to protest the executions and Iran’s handling of the demonstrations.

“What is happening in Iran is completely unacceptable and must stop,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said. “We have strongly condemned the executions. … We have called on Iran to end the use of the death penalty and to respect human rights.”

A picture obtained from the Iranian Mizan News Agency on December 12, 2022, shows the public execution of Majidreza Rahnavard, in Iran’s Mashhad city. (Mizan News/AFP)

In Denmark, Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen called the executions “completely unacceptable” and said the European Union should impose additional sanctions on Iran.

Separately on Tuesday, the state-run IRNA news agency said Iran’s intelligence ministry arrested six teams of operatives linked to Mossad, Israel’s chief intelligence and secret-service agency.

Without providing evidence, the report said the spy teams planned to assassinate an unnamed high-ranking military official and had carried out several sabotage operations in the country’s big cities.

The report also said security forces identified 23 alleged members of these teams and had arrested 13 of them who were in the country.

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