DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Belgium and Iran exchanged prisoners on Friday in Oman, with officials saying Tehran released a Belgian official in exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of plotting to bomb a rally in exile. France.
The initial announcement by Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not identify the prisoners being transferred.
However, the Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, said in a statement that the employee, Olivier Vandecasteele, has been released. Iran’s ambassador to Iran later said the ambassador, Assadollah Assadi, had been released.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Oman said that “those who were released were transferred from Tehran and Brussels to Muscat today, Friday, in preparation for their return home.” He added that “the Sultanate of Oman appreciated the good spirit that existed in the talks in Muscat between the Iranian and Belgian sides, and their willingness to resolve the issue.”
De Croo said Vandecasteele was transferred to Oman on Thursday night. He was received by a group of Belgian ambassadors and military officers, and then examined by doctors.
“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran. In unbearable conditions. Innocent,” De Croo wrote. “The return of Olivier Vandecasteele to Belgium is a relief. Rest in peace to his family, friends and colleagues. “
Oman has been working as an interlocutor for the West and Iran.
In January, Iran sentenced Vandecasteele to a long prison term and 74 lashes after being found guilty of espionage in an unsolved case. He was also fined $1 million. Vandecasteele was arrested in Iran in February 2022 while carrying his luggage, after working with the Norwegian Refugee Council and Relief International in the Islamic Republic from 2015 to 2021, according to Amnesty International.
His family and the Belgian government strongly denied Iran’s allegations, made without providing evidence, that he was a spy. In order to facilitate the exchange of the Iranian ambassador, Belgium implemented in March a prisoner exchange agreement established by the country’s criminal court.
In 2021, Belgium found Assadi guilty of driving a bomb that foiled an Iranian opposition group in France and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors arrested Assadi at a family home, he was stopped by Belgian police and found 550 grams (1.21 pounds) of TATP bombs and detonators in 2018. They have been trying to trace a meeting in Villepinte, France, of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. , the exiled Iranian opposition group known as the MEK.
Among the many notable guests at the meeting in Villepinte that day were President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the US House of Representatives; and former Colombian leader Ingrid Betancourt.
Assadi was arrested the next day in Germany and extradited to Belgium. Belgian intelligence identified him as a senior official in the Iranian Ministry of Justice and Security who was working undercover at the Iranian embassy in Austria. Iran denied Assad’s involvement.
Iran has carried out kidnappings and other plots against dissidents in the past. However, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian called Assadi an “innocent diplomat” in a tweet after he was released on Friday. Iranian state television called the accusation “false”.
Iran has detained a number of foreign nationals and nationals over the years, charging them with espionage or other state security offenses and prosecuting them in secret trials that rights groups say they have denied.
Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.
Iran, which faces Western sanctions for rapidly advancing its nuclear program, has faced protests in recent months and financial problems. Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq had already planned to travel to Tehran this week before the prisoners were announced.
Associate reporters Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this story.
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