Amnesty International says a Belgian aid worker imprisoned in Iran for more than a year is being held in solitary confinement in a windowless basement cell with bright lights turned on 24 hours a day and is denied access to adequate healthcare and fresh air, which the group said amounted to torture.
Iranian authorities are subjecting Olivier Vandecasteele, 42, “to an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law, as his whereabouts are unknown to his family, lawyer and Belgian consular authorities,” the London-based human rights watchdog said on February 27.
There are indications that Vandecasteele is being held “hostage to compel the Belgium authorities to handover” former Iranian official Asadollah Asadi, who is serving a 20-year sentence in Belgium, according to the human rights group.
Western governments have repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of taking dual and foreign nationals hostage for the sole purpose of using them in prisoner swaps.
On February 24, 2022, agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) arbitrarily arrested Vandecasteele, who was initially detained in Tehran’s Evin prison where he was “subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including through prolonged solitary confinement in a room with bright lights on 24 hours a day, which caused him deep distress.”
Authorities transferred him to an unknown location in August 2022, according to Amnesty, which said, “During brief, infrequent phone calls, his family learned that authorities are holding him in solitary confinement in a windowless basement cell with bright lights turned on 24 hours a day, without access to natural light and fresh air and are denying him meaningful contact with other people.”
The group said that Vandecasteele is denied adequate healthcare despite suffering from “dental and gastric problems.”
On January 10, 2023, state media reported that a Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Vandecasteele to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes and a fine after what Amnesty called a “grossly unfair” trial that lasted only 30 minutes.
Under Iran’s sentencing guidelines the Belgian would serve 12 and a half years in prison.
Vandecasteele was convicted of multiple charges, including “espionage for foreign intelligence services,” “collaborating with a hostile government,” the United States, “money laundering” and smuggling $500,000.
His right to a fair trial was “flagrantly violated, including to access a lawyer of his choosing, to adequate defence, to meaningfully challenge the legality of his detention, and to be tried by an independent, competent and impartial tribunal,” Amnesty said.
No appeal is known to have been filed.
Amnesty urged the authorities to immediately reveal Vandecasteele’s whereabouts and release him, and to conduct a “prompt, independent, effective, and impartial” investigation into those suspected of all the unlawful acts committed against the Belgian.
All those suspected of hostage-taking, torture and enforced disappearance should be brought to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts, it said.
Vandecasteele’s trial and sentencing came amid anti-government protests that have convulsed Iran for five months. Iranian officials have blamed the unrest on foreign powers, without providing any evidence.
Belgium and other European countries have urged their nationals to leave Iran, warning that they face the risk of arbitrary arrest or unfair trial.