Belgium and Iran exchange prisoners in Oman, free aid worker and diplomat convicted of bomb plotting

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Belgium and Iran carried out a prisoner swap in Oman on Friday, with Tehran releasing a Belgian aid worker in exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of trying to bomb an exile meeting in France, officials said.

The first announcement by Oman’s foreign ministry did not identify the prisoners to be exchanged.

However, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced in a statement that the aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, had been freed. Iranian state television later said the diplomat, Assadollah Asadi, had been freed.

The Omani Foreign Ministry said that “the released persons were transferred from Tehran and Brussels to Muscat today, Friday, to prepare for their return to their country”. He added that “the Sultanate of Oman appreciated the positive spirit of the discussions between the Iranian and Belgian sides in Muscat, as well as their enthusiasm to resolve the 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 and then evaluated by doctors.

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

Oman has long been a negotiating partner of the West with Iran.

In January, Iran sentenced Vandecasteele to a long prison term and 74 lashes after he was convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial. He was also fined $1 million. According to Amnesty International, Vandecasteele was arrested in Iran in February 2022 while packing her belongings after working in the Islamic Republic from 2015 to 2021 with the Norwegian Refugee Council and Aid.

His family and the Belgian government have vehemently denied Iran’s claims, without providing evidence, that he was a spy. In order to allow the exchange with the Iranian diplomat, Belgium adopted a controversial prisoner exchange agreement in March, which was upheld by the country’s constitutional court.

In 2021, Belgium convicted Assad of foiling a bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors linked Assad to a couple, Belgian police stopped him, and in 2018 550 grams (1.21 lb) of TATP explosives and a detonator were found. They tried to target the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq meeting in Villepinte, France. , an exiled Iranian opposition group, the MEK.

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Dozens of prominent guests at the Villepinte rally that day included then-President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the United States House of Representatives; and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Assad was arrested a day later in Germany and taken to Belgium. Belgian intelligence identified him as an officer of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security who was based in the Iranian embassy in Austria. Iran has denied Assad’s involvement.

Iran has a history of carrying out kidnappings and other plots against dissidents abroad. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian called Assad an “innocent diplomat” in a tweet following his release on Friday. Iranian state television called the proceedings against him false accusations.

Iran has detained scores of foreigners and dual nationals over the years on charges of espionage or other state security crimes and convicted them after secret trials in which rights groups say they were denied due process.

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

Iran, which faces Western sanctions over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, has faced protests and economic strain in recent months. The Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, already visited Tehran over the weekend before the announced exchange of prisoners.


Associated Press writers Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.


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