Belgian aid worker, Iranian diplomat freed in prisoner swap mediated by Oman

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A Belgian aid worker jailed in Iran and an Iranian diplomat imprisoned in Belgium were freed on Friday in a swap agreement mediated by Oman, both sides said.

Aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele had been arrested on a visit to Iran in February 2022 and sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges including spying.

Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadi was convicted in Belgium in 2021 in connection with a foiled bomb plot in France and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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Belgian and Iranian authorities had rejected the charges against Vandecasteele and Assadi respectively as fabricated.

“As I speak, Belgium’s Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium. If all goes to plan, he’ll be with us this evening. Free at last,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement on Friday.

“Last night Olivier was flown to Oman where he was looked after by a team of Belgian soldiers and diplomats. This morning he underwent a number of medical examinations to assess his state of health and to enable him to return in the best possible conditions,” De Croo added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian described Assadi in a Twitter post as “our country’s innocent diplomat who was illegally arrested against international law,”and said he would return to Iran soon.

The exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), whose rally near Paris was the bomb plot's target, said the release of Assadi 15 years before the end of his sentence encouraged terrorism.

It also said his release violated the judgment of Belgium's Constitutional Court that said the government had to inform victims before the transfer so that they had a chance to take it back to court.

Oman’s foreign ministry said earlier an agreement had been reached under which prisoners were released and transported from Brussels and Tehran to Muscat, the Omani capital, on Friday in preparation for their repatriation.

Oman has good relations with both Iran and Western countries and has acted before as a mediator for the two estranged sides on matters such as prisoner swaps.

Belgium’s justice minister said at the time of Vandecasteele’s conviction that it was based on fabricated evidence and amounted to retribution for the prison term given to Assadi.

A treaty took force last month under which Belgian prisoners in Iran can serve their sentences at home and vice versa.

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