Belgian aid worker freed from Iran thanks supporters who campaigned for his release

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Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker freed by Iran last week in exchange for Belgium releasing an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism, on Thursday thanked supporters who campaigned for him.

“After 15 months of arbitrary detention, I am gradually getting back in touch with another reality: a beautiful week in my democratic Belgium,” he said in a statement sent to AFP.


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He said “the discrepancy” between his life since returning on May 26 and his long captivity -- 13 months of it spent in solitary confinement -- “is huge.”

The 42-year-old returned home after mediation by Oman.

In exchange, Belgium repatriated Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat incarcerated over a 2018 plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris.

Although the terms of the exchange meant Assadi was meant to see out the rest of his sentence in Iran, he was welcomed as hero by Islamic Republic officials, who declared him “innocent”.

The exiled Iranian opposition group the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which was the target of the 2018 bomb plot, criticized Assadi’s release, saying it violated a Belgian court order requiring them to be consulted first.

Critics of the pact allege the prisoner swap would encourage Tehran to take Belgians hostage as bargaining chips to seek the return of agents like Assadi arrested for terror offences in the West.

Imprisoned on an Iranian conviction for “espionage,” Vandecasteele said he was unaware of the scale the campaign on his behalf, which involved regular demonstrations, petitions, lobbying and posters going up across Belgium.

“The extent of your support moves me deeply,” he said.

“I want to take the time to personally thank all those who believed in my innocence and gave me back my freedom.”

He made no mention of Assadi or the arrangement that saw them exchanged.

The aid worker said a medical team was on hand to help him recover from his captivity and readjustment, and that he was reconnecting with his family “quietly and discreetly.”

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