Belgium Ratifies Prisoner-Alternate Treaty With Iran

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BRUSSELS — After two days of contentious debate, Belgium’s Parliament has authorized a much-criticized treaty with Iran that will permit prisoner exchanges between the 2 nations.

Critics of the treaty, which was ratified late Wednesday by a vote of 79 to 41, with 11 abstentions, argue that Belgium is giving in to a type of hostage-taking by Iran.

In late February, the Iranian authorities detained a Belgian help employee, Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, on expenses of espionage. His arrest was not made public, however on March 11, Belgium signed the prisoner-exchange treaty with Iran that was ratified on Wednesday.

Mr. Vandecasteele labored in Iran for a number of nongovernmental help organizations for 5 years, however left in March 2021 after shedding his job. He returned in February to choose up his private belongings, however was arrested and imprisoned on the espionage expenses, which the Belgian authorities mentioned had been baseless.

The detention of Mr. Vandecasteele was revealed by his household solely this month.

Belgium’s justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, defended the treaty to legislators. “Iran is a rogue state, however we don’t select whom we discuss to,” he mentioned, emphasizing that liberating Mr. Vandecasteele was “our precedence.”

However opposition legislators, led by the New Flemish Alliance, a right-wing nationalist occasion, mentioned the federal government was giving in to blackmail from Tehran and placing extra Belgians in danger.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo insisted that the treaty was the one solution to safe the discharge of Mr. Vandecasteele. “Belgium doesn’t abandon its residents,” he mentioned in Parliament. “What do you inform his household, that we’re going to let him rot in his cell?”

Iran, critics mentioned, was pushing to safe the return of an Iranian diplomat convicted final yr in Belgium to twenty years in jail for orchestrating a plot to bomb a 2018 assembly of Iranian opposition leaders in France. If the diplomat is allowed to return to Iran, he’s prone to be instantly launched relatively than serving out his sentence there, the critics mentioned.

The diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, 50, was discovered responsible in February 2021 of organizing the plot and offering explosives to a Belgian-Iranian couple to focus on the annual gathering of the Nationwide Council of Resistance of Iran, which usually options outstanding international supporters like the previous F.B.I. chief Louis J. Freeh and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the previous New York mayor.

Mr. Assadi, the Belgian court docket dominated, was working for Iranian intelligence below his diplomatic cowl from Iran’s Embassy in Austria and so had no immunity in Belgium.

Iran has demanded his launch, and even Mr. Van Quickenborne mentioned to Parliament that after Mr. Assadi’s arrest, Belgium and its 200 residents in Iran had grow to be targets. “From Day 1, we’ve felt strain from Iran, and the safety state of affairs of our pursuits has deteriorated systematically,” he mentioned. However he denied any direct hyperlink between the treaty and the Assadi case.

In an announcement on Thursday, the Nationwide Council of Resistance of Iran, which had lobbied exhausting towards the treaty, condemned its ratification as “shameful.” Belgium’s vote, it mentioned, would supply “the best incentive for the spiritual fascism ruling Iran to step up terrorism and to make use of hostage-taking as a lot as potential for the discharge of its arrested terrorists and brokers.”

The council is the political wing of the Mujahedeen Khalq, which seeks to overthrow the Islamic authorities of Iran.

The treaty would allow Iranians convicted in Belgium to serve their sentences in Iran, and Belgians convicted in Iran to serve their sentences in Belgium. However the treaty additionally permits every occasion to grant amnesty, and critics say that there’s little doubt that Mr. Assadi can be let out.

Mr. Assadi, prosecutors mentioned at his trial, led to a pound of the explosive triacetone triperoxide and a detonator to Vienna from Iran in his baggage after which drove it to Luxembourg. There, he handed it over on June 30, 2018, to the Iranian-Belgian couple at a Pizza Hut. Mr. Assadi was arrested at a service station in Germany, the place he didn’t have diplomatic immunity, as he drove again to Austria.

The couple had been granted political asylum and later citizenship in Belgium. They had been arrested as they drove to Paris from Antwerp on the day of the rally. A fourth defendant was an affiliate of Mr. Assadi’s who was speculated to information the couple on the rally.

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