A Belgian aid worker incarcerated in Iran and an Iranian diplomat jailed in Belgium in connection with a foiled bomb plot have been released in a swap deal mediated by Oman.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement on May 26 that Olivier Vandecasteele was transferred to Oman late on May 25, adding, “If all goes as planned, he will be with us tonight.”
Vandecasteele had been arrested on a visit to Iran in February 2022 and sentenced in January this year to 40 years in prison on charges including spying, after what Amnesty International called a “grossly unfair” trial that lasted only 30 minutes.
“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran. In unbearable conditions. Innocent,” De Croo said.
Hours later, the prime minister shared a picture of Vandecasteele, visibly emaciated, onboard a plane.
Eindelijk vrij. Enfin avec nous. pic.twitter.com/XrZzv96nin— Alexander De Croo 🇧🇪🇪🇺 (@alexanderdecroo) May 26, 2023
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced in a Twitter post that Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court in 2021, would return to Iran soon.
Amir-Abdollahian said that Assadi, who was found guilty of having plotted to bomb a rally of an exiled opposition group outside Paris in 2018, was “innocent.”
The Paris-based opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), immediately decried the swap, saying in a statement that Belgium released a "terrorist."
"The release of the terrorist...is a shameful ransom to terrorism and hostage-taking. This will embolden the religious fascism ruling Iran to continue its crimes," the NCRI said.
Oman, which has long served as an interlocutor for Western countries with Iran, earlier in the day said that a prisoner swap between Belgium and Iran was underway.
“Those released were transferred from Tehran and Brussels to Muscat today, Friday, in preparation for their return to their countries,” Oman’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The sultanate of Oman appreciated the high positive spirit that prevailed in the talks in Muscat between the Iranian and Belgian sides, and their keenness to settle this humanitarian issue.”
Belgium repeatedly said there were no grounds for Vandecasteele’s detention. Its justice minister said he was convicted "for a fabricated series of crimes” in retribution for Assadi's jailing.
Western governments have repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of taking dual and foreign nationals hostage to use them in prisoner swaps or as a bargaining chip in international negotiations.