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Belgian Aid Worker, Iranian Diplomat Freed in Prisoner Swap


People hold pictures of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele during a protest against his detention in Iran, in Brussels, Jan. 22, 2023.

An Iranian diplomat imprisoned in Belgium, Asadollah Assadi, and a Belgian aid worker jailed in Iran, Olivier Vandecasteele, were freed on Friday in an exchange mediated by Oman, both sides said.

Assadi was the third-ranking official in Iran's embassy in Vienna, Austria. He was arrested in Germany, accused of plotting to bomb an Iranian rally organized by the exiled opposition group known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in Paris in 2018.

A criminal court in Antwerp oversaw Assadi's case along with three accomplices. In February 2021, the court in Antwerp rejected Assadi's diplomatic immunity and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

Aid worker Vandecasteele had been arrested on a visit to Iran in February 2022 and sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges including spying.

Belgian and Iranian authorities had rejected the charges against Vandecasteele and Assadi respectively as fabricated.

Oman's foreign ministry said prisoners were released and transported from Brussels and Tehran to Muscat, the Omani capital, on Friday in preparation for their repatriation.

"As I speak, Belgium's Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium. If all goes to plan, he'll be with us this evening. Free at last," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement on Friday.

"Last night Olivier was flown to Oman where he was looked after by a team of Belgian soldiers and diplomats. This morning he underwent a number of medical examinations to assess his state of health and to enable him to return in the best possible conditions," De Croo added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian described Assadi in a Twitter post as "our country's innocent diplomat who was illegally arrested against international law," and said he would return to Iran soon.

The U.S. State Department greeted the news of Vandecasteele's release.

"We are glad to see Belgian citizen Olivier Vandecasteele released from Iran and returning home to his loved ones," a State Department spokesperson told VOA's Persian Service. "Iran's decision to sentence Mr. Vandecasteele to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for espionage was a clear and despicable example of the regime's unjust imprisonment of foreigners for political gain."

Regarding Americans held in Iran, the official said, "We remain committed to securing the freedom of all U.S. nationals who continue to be wrongfully detained overseas, and we are working relentlessly to bring them home, including Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz."

The United States and European countries accuse the Islamic Republic of taking hostages by detaining foreign and dual nationals to exchange with its prisoners in other countries. The Islamic Republic swapped five Iranian Americans with Iranian prisoners in the United States in 2015. The prisoner swap was choreographed to coincide with nuclear talks.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.