Iran releases Belgian aid worker in exchange for diplomat convicted of bomb plot

Move is mediated by Oman, with Olivier Vandecasteele transferred to Muscat; Iran’s Assadollah Assadi had been convicted in scheme targeting Iranian exiles

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 and Iran conducted a prisoner exchange Friday in Oman, with officials saying Tehran released a Belgian aid worker in exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of attempting to bomb a meeting of exiles in France.

The initial announcement by Oman’s foreign ministry did not identify the prisoners being swapped.

However, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement that the aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, had been freed. Iranian state television later said, in an on-screen graphic, that the diplomat would be freed.

“Informed sources report the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat detained in Belgium,” Iranian state TV said. “Further details will be announced.”

Oman’s foreign ministry said that “those released were transferred from Tehran and Brussels to Muscat today, Friday, in preparation for their return to their countries.” It added that “the sultanate of Oman appreciated the high positive spirit that prevailed in the talks in Muscat between the Iranian and Belgian sides, and their keenness to settle this humanitarian issue.”

De Croo said Vandecasteele was transferred to Oman on Thursday night. He was received by a team of Belgian diplomats and military officials, then was assessed by doctors.

“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran. In unbearable conditions. Innocent,” De Croo wrote. “Olivier Vandecasteele’s return to Belgium is a relief. A relief for his family, friends and colleagues.”

Oman has long served as an interlocutor for the West with Iran.

In January, Iran sentenced Vandecasteele to a lengthy prison term and 74 lashes after convicting him of espionage in a closed-door trial. He also was fined $1 million.

In 2021, Belgium convicted an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Assadollah Assadi (Courtesy)

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 following secretive trials in which rights groups say they have been denied due process.

Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.

Iran, facing Western sanctions over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, has faced protests in recent months and economic strain. Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq was already scheduled to visit Tehran this weekend before the announced prisoner swap.

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