DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Belgium and Iran held a prisoner swap in Oman on Friday, with authorities saying Tehran released a Belgian aid worker in exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of trying to bomb a gathering of exiles. in France.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Belgium and Iran staged a prisoner swap in Oman on Friday, with authorities saying Tehran released a Belgian aid worker in exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of attempting to plant a bomb in a meeting of exiles in France.
The initial announcement by the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not identify the exchanged prisoners.
However, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement that the aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, had been released. Iranian state television later said diplomat Assadollah Assadi had been released.
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.” He added that “the Sultanate of Oman appreciated the high positive spirit that prevailed in the Muscat talks between the Iranian and Belgian sides, and their enthusiasm to resolve 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 officers, then evaluated 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 the West’s interlocutor with Iran.
In January, Iran sentenced Vandecasteele to a long prison term and 74 lashes after convicting him of espionage in a closed-door trial. He was also fined one million dollars. Vandecasteele was arrested in Iran in February 2022 while packing his belongings, after working with the Norwegian Refugee Council and Relief International in the Islamic Republic from 2015 to 2021, according to Amnesty International.
His family and the Belgian government strongly denied Iran’s claims, made without offering evidence, that he was a spy. To make the exchange with the Iranian diplomat possible, Belgium adopted a controversial prisoner exchange treaty in March that was upheld by the country’s constitutional court.
In 2021, Belgium convicted Assadi of planning a botched bomb attack against an Iranian opposition group in exile in France and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors linked Assadi to a couple, detained by Belgian police and found with 550 grams (1.21 pounds) of TATP explosives and a detonator in 2018. They had been trying to target a meeting in Villepinte, France, of Mujahedeen- e-Khalq. , an Iranian opposition group in exile known as the MEK.
Among the dozens of prominent guests at the rally in Villepinte that day were then-President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the US House of Representatives; and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Assadi was arrested a day later in Germany and transferred to Belgium. Belgian intelligence identified him as an official from Iran’s intelligence and security ministry operating undercover at the Iranian embassy in Austria. Iran denied Assadi’s involvement.
Iran has carried out kidnappings and other plots against dissidents abroad in the past. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian referred to Assadi as “an innocent diplomat” in a tweet after his release on Friday. Iranian state television called the case against him “false accusations.”
Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, charging them with espionage or other state security offenses and sentencing them after secret trials in which human rights groups say they have been denied due process.
Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using these prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.
Iran, which faces Western sanctions over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, has faced protests in recent months and economic tension. Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq was already scheduled to visit Tehran this weekend ahead of the prisoner swap announcement.
Associated Press writers Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.
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Jon Gambrell, Associated Press