A Belgian aid worker and an Iranian diplomat were freed in a prisoner swap
Iran has freed a Belgian aid worker who was being held on espionage charges in exchange for the release of one of its diplomats accused of a failed attempt to organize an Iranian opposition rally in France.
The pair were exchanged in Oman on Friday following an agreement brokered by the Gulf nation. Aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who was arrested in 2022, was sentenced to 40 years in prison, while Iranian diplomat Asadollah Asadi was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty in Belgium in 2021 of the 2018 bomb plot.
Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, said in a tweet that the “innocent” Assad was “on his way home” and would soon return to the Islamic republic.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday: “Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be with us tonight. Finally free.”
He said Vandecasteele was flown to Oman on Thursday “where he was looked after by a team of Belgian soldiers and diplomats”. There, he also underwent medical tests “to assess his health and to return in the best possible conditions.”
The prisoner exchange agreement between Belgium and Iran was concluded in 2022 and was approved by the Belgian Constitutional Court this spring. Belgium rejected Iran’s accusations against Vandecasteele, and De Croo reiterated the aid worker’s innocence on Friday.
According to Western diplomats in Tehran, dozens of European citizens have been imprisoned in Iranian prisons in recent years, some of whom were later exchanged for Iranian prisoners held in other countries.
Asadi was high on the list of people Iran would like to trade. So is Hamid Nouri, a former Iranian justice official who was sentenced to life in prison by a Swedish court last year for war crimes. Western diplomats say Iran wants to exchange him for a Swedish-Iranian citizen accused of spying for Israel.
At least three Iranian-American dual citizens have been held in Iranian prisons for years. The Islamic Republic said they could be swapped for Iranian prisoners in America without clarifying who the Iranians were. According to Iranian analysts and Western diplomats, Iran also linked their release to the release of about $7 billion of Iranian oil dollars stuck in South Korean banks due to US sanctions.
Oman and Qatar are trying to ease the tension between the Islamic Republic and the West over the fate of the imprisoned prisoners. The Omani Foreign Ministry said earlier on Friday that an agreement had been reached, according to which prisoners were transported from Tehran and Brussels to the capital, Muscat, for repatriation.