Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Belgium’s top court reopens door for contentious prisoner-swap deal with Iran – POLITICO

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Belgium’s highest court on Friday overturned a freeze on a controversial treaty on prisoner exchanges that could allow an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism to be sent back to Tehran.

The treaty would allow Iranians convicted in Belgium to serve their sentence in Iran, and vice-versa.

It had been approved by the Belgian parliament last July, but was put on hold by the Belgian Constitutional Court in December, out of fear that Tehran would not hold its end of the bargain.

The Court now dismissed those concerns, but said in a statement on Friday evening the victims should be informed of the decision.

The treaty could pave the way for an exchange between a Belgian humanitarian worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, imprisoned in Iran for over a year on charges which the Belgian authorities have labeled as “fabricated,” and an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.

Assadi was sentenced to 20 years in prison by an Antwerp court in 2021 for plotting a bomb attack against a rally organized by Iranian dissidents near Paris — which was foiled thanks to a tip from Israeli intelligence to European authorities.

Vandecasteele is considered to be a victim of the Iranian regime’s hostage diplomacy.

He was convicted on four different charges: spying on Iran, cooperating with the United States against Iran, currency smuggling, and money laundering, and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

His sentence was later upped to 40 years and 74 lashes, just a few weeks after the treaty on the exchange of prisoners had been put on hold by the Belgian Constitutional Court.

The Belgian government has been pushing for Vandecasteele’s release. Following a recent phone call with Iranian President Ebraïm Raïssi, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the aid worker was “innocent” and “need[ed] to be immediately released.”

The Iranian opposition stressed that the ruling provides the plaintiffs with the opportunity to seek legal address. “The National Council of Resistance and the plaintiffs are exercising this right to prevent the release of this terrorist,” said Shahin Gobadi, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

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