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Iranian diplomat convicted of plot to bomb opposition rally in France

Mossad tip led to arrest of Assadollah Assadi, who faces 20 years in prison, and three other suspects

People hold pictures of relatives killed by the Iranian regime during the 'Free Iran 2018 - the Alternative' event on June 30, 2018, in Villepinte, north of Paris. Six people were arrested in Belgium, Germany and France for an alleged plot to attack the rally, including an Iranian diplomat and his wife. (AFP Photo/Zakaria Abdelkafi)
People hold pictures of relatives killed by the Iranian regime during the 'Free Iran 2018 - the Alternative' event on June 30, 2018, in Villepinte, north of Paris. Six people were arrested in Belgium, Germany and France for an alleged plot to attack the rally, including an Iranian diplomat and his wife. (AFP Photo/Zakaria Abdelkafi)

An Iranian official on Thursday was convicted of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court that rejected his claim of diplomatic immunity.

Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based diplomat detained in Belgium, refused to testify during his trial last year, invoking his diplomatic status. He did not attend the hearing at the Antwerp courthouse.

Prosecutors had requested the maximum prison sentence of 20 years on charges of attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group. Assadi contested all the charges against him.

Three other defendants also received jail sentences.

During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs and representatives of the The People’s Mujahedeen opposition group, or MEK, claimed without offering evidence that the diplomat set up the attack on direct orders from Iran’s highest authorities. Tehran has denied having a hand in the plot.

People attend the “Free Iran 2018 – the Alternative” event on June 30, 2018 in Villepinte, north of Paris during the Iranian resistance national council (NCRI) annual meeting. (AFP/Zakaria Abdelkafi)

In 2018, Israel’s Mossad spy agency thwarted the terror attack in a Paris suburb, giving authorities in France, Germany, and Belgium crucial intelligence that led to arrests of the cell headed by the Iranian diplomat at the Austrian embassy in Vienna.

The cell also consisted of two Belgian nationals and an alleged accomplice in France. They planned to bomb a June 30 conference organized by MEK.

At the time of the alleged plot, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was trying to maintain the support of European capitals for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which then-US president Donald Trump had abandoned.

Assadi’s conviction comes at a critical time and has the potential to embarrass his country as US President Joe Biden’s administration weighs whether to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Iran also said last month it expects Washington to lift economic sanctions that Trump imposed on the country after pulling America out of the deal in 2018.

On June 30, 2018, Belgian police officers tipped off about a possible attack against the annual meeting of the MEK, stopped a couple traveling in a Mercedes car. In their luggage, they found 550 grams of the unstable TATP explosive and a detonator.

Belgium’s bomb disposal unit said the device was of professional quality. It could have caused a sizable explosion and panic in the crowd, estimated at 25,000 people, that had gathered that day in the French town of Villepinte, north of Paris.

Among dozens of prominent guests at the rally that day were Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the US House of Representatives; and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Donald Trump, speaks at the Iran Freedom Convention for Human Rights and democracy at the Grand Hyatt, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Assadi was arrested a day later in Germany and transferred to Belgium. The court said since Assadi was on vacation at the time of his arrest he was not entitled to immunity.

A note from Belgium’s intelligence and security agency seen by The Associated Press identified him as an officer of Iran’s intelligence and security ministry who operated under cover at Iran’s embassy in Vienna. Belgium’s state security officers said he worked for the ministry’s so-called Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union’s list of organizations regarded as terrorist.

Prosecutors said he was the “operational commander” of the attack and accused him of recruiting the couple — Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami — years before the attack, to obtain information about the opposition. Both were of Iranian heritage.

Saadouni was sentenced to 15 years in jail while Naami was handed an 18-year sentence.

According to the investigation, Assadi carried the explosives to Austria on a commercial flight from Iran and later handed the bomb over to the pair during a meeting at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg.

The fourth defendant, Mehrdad Arefani, was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Flag of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (photo credit: CC BY Wikipedia)

The MEK, formed in the 1960s to overthrow the shah of Iran, fought the rise of the mullahs in Tehran following the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It earned itself a listing as a “terrorist organization” by the US State Department in 1997 and was only removed from terror watchlists by the European Union in 2008 and by Washington in 2012 after denouncing violence and getting Western politicians to lobby on its behalf. The MEK supports a hard line on Iran and backs US sanctions on the country.

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