Belgian hostage in Iran Olivier Vandecasteele (2-L) is welcomed home by his family at Melsbroek Military Airport in Brussels, Belgium, 26 May 2023. EPA-EFE/PHOTONEWS / POOL


Belgian government secures release of aid worker in Iran ‘in exchange for convicted terrorist’


Belgian humanitarian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele is returning to his home country after an “excruciating” jail spell in Iran where he was subjected to “inhumane conditions” including torture, according to his family.

The 42-year-old NGO worker’s release comes after almost a year and a half of detention at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where a number of European and US citizens are detained on spying charges. His mistreatment in prison was so unbearable that he undertook a partial hunger strike in protest in mid-November.

Following his arrest by Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) operatives, he was imprisoned on February 26 last year and was in January 2023 sentenced to 40 years and 74 lashes, in what many saw as a sham trial and where he was reportedly denied access to lawyers.

His release comes after what the VRT NWS media outlet claimed was deal between Belgium and Iran, brokered by Oman, in which Vandecasteele was swapped for convicted terrorist, Assadollah Assadi, whom Iran had wanted freed from jail. VRT said its claims are based on communication with contacts in the Belgian government.

The government in Brussels has not officially commented on any trade-off involving the NGO worker.

Following his release after 455 days of imprisonment, Vandecasteele underwent a series of medical check-ups in Oman and is now on a plane to Belgium, where he is expected to land on Friday evening.

Omani officials said in a statement on Friday the country “appreciates the positive high-level spirit that prevailed during the discussions in Muscat between the Iranian and Belgian sides, and their commitment to resolving this humanitarian issue”.

Celebrating the humanitarian worker’s freedom, Belgium’s Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, described the move as a big win, saying Belgium would never leave an innocent countryman behind. “We do not abandon anyone in our country. Certainly, not someone who is innocent,” he said.

However, the Vandecasteele’s liberation has prompted some to decry the apparent prisoner exchange as coming at too high a price if it has resulted in the release of Assadi. The Iranian diplomat (49), who worked at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, was convicted of plotting to bomb a major rally in Paris in June 2018. He was given a 20-year jail term by the court in Antwerp.

Those against an exchange deal said it would effectively reward Iran for its actions and set a dangerous precedent where other innocent Westerners could be used as pawns by Tehran in a similar way.

Nevertheless, Belgium’s government was in support of a prisoner exchange and signed a treaty with Iran to make such swaps possible, a highly contentious treaty that was tested in the courts.

To add to the confusion over the terms under which Vandecasteele came to be freed, just last month the Belgian Minister of Justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne, was forced to deny press reports of a possible prisoner swap with Iran. At the time, he slammed the country for being “a rogue state specialised in manipulation”.