An Iranian who claimed diplomatic immunity from prosecution was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court on Thursday for an attempted 2018 bombing in Paris.
The court in Antwerp convicted Assadollah Assadi, who was attached to the Iranian mission in Austria when he supplied explosives for the planned attack on a rally organized by exiled Iranian opposition activists in the French capital.
His conviction is the first time an Iranian official has been sentenced for terrorism in the European Union since Iran’s 1979 revolution, and it comes as President Joe Biden is considering whether to rejoin the historic 2015 nuclear accord and to lift the sanctions on Iran that were reimposed by his predecessor Donald Trump.
The 2018 planned bombing was thwarted and Assadi, now 49, was arrested in Germany in July 2018. German and Belgian authorities dismissed his claim of diplomatic immunity. Three accomplices, all dual Iranian-Belgians, were also given jail terms of between 15 and 18 years for their roles in the plot.
In the court hearings, which were held last year, Belgian prosecutors had sought the maximum 20-year sentence for Assadi, who refused to appear in court. According to prosecutors, Assadi smuggled explosives for the planned bombing aboard a commercial flight to Austria from Iran. The diplomat’s claim of immunity was dismissed by the court on the grounds that he was on vacation when arrested and not in Austria, where he was accredited.
In its ruling, the Antwerp court emphasized that Iran was not on trial, but agreed the defendants were members of a group directed by Iran's intelligence and security services. The rally they were plotting to bomb featured several politicians from the U.S., Britain and other countries, including Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and half-a-dozen British lawmakers.
According to trial documents, Belgian state security officials identified Assadi as an officer of Iran’s Intelligence and Security Ministry who was working under diplomatic cover in Austria. Belgian officials also said Assadi worked for the ministry's directorate for internal security, also known as Department 312, which the European Union lists as a terrorist organization.
Belgian officials testified that Assadi handed the explosives over at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg to two of his accomplices, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife, Nassimeh Naami, 36, who had been granted political asylum in Belgium and later granted Belgian nationality.
Following a tip off from Israeli intelligence services, Belgian police intercepted the pair and found 550 grams of TATP explosives and a detonator in their Mercedes Benz. During the December trial, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dubbed the bomb plot a “false flag” operation designed to embarrass Tehran.
But the head of Belgium’s State Security Service, Jaak Raes, said intelligence officials had determined the planned bombing was a state-sanctioned operation, approved in Tehran. “The plan to attack was conceived on behalf of Iran and under its leadership,” Raes wrote in a letter to the Belgian federal prosecutor. “It was not a personal initiative of Assadi.”
Iran was accused also in 2018 of planning an assassination in Denmark.
Belgian prosecutors said the main intention of the bomb plotters was to assassinate Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance to Iran, or NCRI, a wing of the opposition Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a group that has had a complicated history of support and rejection by Western powers. Iran blames the MEK for a series of anti-regime protests in 2017 and 2018.
The case could renew attention on Tehran’s alleged record of state-sponsored terrorism, complicating President Biden’s bid to engage once again in nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Tehran last year said it would not recognize the verdict by the Belgian court.
“The ruling shows two things: a diplomat doesn't have immunity for criminal acts... and the responsibility of the Iranian State in what could have been carnage,” prosecution lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier told Reuters on Thursday outside court. Some two dozen Iranian opposition activists celebrated the verdict outside the courthouse.
Sweden-based Iranian rights activist Iraj Mesdaghi said Assadi’s conviction in Belgium and the impending trial of former Iranian judiciary official Hamid Nouri in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, show a willingness by EU governments to prosecute Iranian officials for illicit acts committed both at home and abroad.
“We are at the beginning of a path in which steps certainly will be taken to put other Iranian regime officials on trial too,” Mesdaghi said in a Thursday appearance on VOA Persian TV.
The former Iranian political prisoner has written extensively about the case against Nouri, who is accused of involvement in Iran’s 1988 mass killings of thousands of leftist and MEK prisoners. Nouri has been detained in Sweden since arriving in the country to visit relatives in November 2019.
Hossein Abedini, a member of the NCRI opposition, tweeted that the Belgian court showed it was “time for revision of Iran policy” by the EU. In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell would not comment when asked by reporters for his reaction.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service. Some information from The Associated Press, Reuters.