Belgian aid worker jailed in Iran freed after prisoner swap deal

A Belgian aid worker who was imprisoned in Iran for more than a year has been released after the Gulf state of Oman said it facilitated a prisoner swap deal.

The aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, is expected to arrive in Belgium later on Friday, the Belgian Foreign Ministry announced. Meanwhile, an Iranian diplomat, Assadolah Assadi, has been released from Belgium and is on his way back to Iran, the country’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said.

Oman said it brokered the deal: “Omani efforts have resulted in an agreement between the two parties for a mutual exchange agreement,” Oman’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

According to Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Vandecasteele is “currently on his way to Belgium”. He was taken to Oman on Thursday evening, where he was received by Belgian soldiers and diplomats, De Croo said, and underwent medical tests on Friday morning.

“If all goes well, he will be with us tonight,” De Croo said in a statement. “Finally free.”

Olivier Vandecasteele is seen en route to Belgium after being released in Iran. – From Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo/Twitter

Vandecasteele was sentenced by an Iranian court in January to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes and a $1 million fine, Iran’s state- and judicial-aligned news agency Mizan said.

The 41-year-old aid worker was convicted on charges of spying for a foreign intelligence service and money laundering. Rights group Amnesty International said he had been “arbitrarily detained” and a campaign advocating for his release said his arrest was prompted by “diplomatic and geopolitical reasons”.

“After 455 days of unjust imprisonment, Olivier Vandecasteele has finally regained his freedom. He is due to arrive in Belgium this evening, after 15 months of intense and discreet diplomacy,” the Belgian Foreign Ministry said.

Assadi, who was based in Vienna, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court in 2021 for a foiled terror plot outside Paris in 2018.

In a March ruling, Belgium’s Constitutional Court cleared the way for Assadi’s release in exchange for Vandecasteele, after rejecting a call to end an Iranian-Belgian prisoner swap treaty.

Assadi was arrested in 2018 while driving through Germany, according to Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. He was on trial with a Belgian-Iranian couple and an Iranian national accused of planning a terrorist attack after 500 grams of explosive material, called TATP, and a detonator were found in their car in June 2018.

Assadolah Assadi has been released from Belgium and is on his way back to Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Twitter. – By Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam/Twitter

“Mr. Assadolah Assadi, the innocent diplomat of our country, who has been illegally detained against international law in Germany and Belgium for more than two years, is now on his way back to his homeland and will soon enter our dear Iran Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir said.-Abdollahian said.

The released persons were transported from Tehran and Brussels to Muscat, the capital of Oman, with a view to their return to their country of origin, the Omani foreign ministry said in a press release.

De Croo paid tribute to Belgian diplomats and the country’s security and intelligence service. “Olivier is free today thanks to their dedication and professionalism,” he said.

“We have been worried about Olivier’s fate for over a year. For me, one thing has always prevailed. We will not abandon an innocent compatriot,” he added. “We leave no one behind in our country, especially not someone innocent.”

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