Iran sentences Belgian aid worker to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes

Iran sentences Belgian aid worker to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes


Iran sentences Belgian aid worker to 40 years in prison, 74 lashes

(AFP) - A court in Tehran has sentenced a Belgian aid worker to four decades in prison and 74 lashes after convicting him on espionage and smuggling charges.

According to Iran s Tasnim News Agency, Olivier Vandercasteele was found guilty on four charges: "spying activities, collusion with the United States, currency smuggling and money laundring."

The website of Iran’s judiciary said a "Revolutionary Court" sentenced the 41-year-old aid worker to a total of 40 years in prison, 12.5 years for espionage, 12.5 years for "collaboration with hostile governments," 12.5 years for money laundering and 2.5 years for currency smuggling.

Vandercasteele is also to receive 74 lashes with a whip.

In a first reaction, Olivier van Steirtegem, a friend and spokesperson for the Vandercasteel family, told Belgian television that he "can t imagine such a sentence. It s terrible. His mother doesn t even know where he is kept in jail. And now she has to learn from some Iranian press agency that her son is sentenced to 74 lashes. Unbelievable. Ridiculous."

During an emotional press conference, Nathalie Vandecasteele, the sister of Olivier, said that the family was "utterly unhappy, destroyed by sadness. We re not able to do anything as a result of this injustice."

Last week, the Belgian ambassador to Iran, Gianmarco Rizzo, visited Vandecasteele. According to sister Nathalie, who spoke with the ambassador, Olivier "is in a bad shape," has lost "at least twenty five kilos" and is suffering hearing problems.

Political game

The harsh sentence may be part of a political game between Tehran and Brussels.

Vandecasteele s case has been linked to that of Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was accused of masterminding a plot to bomb a gathering of an opposition group of Iranian exiles in Paris in 2018.

The group, the National Council Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which also goes by the name of "People s Mujaheddin" or "MEK", has bases in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, and in Albania.

French police arrested a Belgian-Iranian couple carrying explosives, which investigators say were intended to be used to attack the NCRI gathering.

Assadi, a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat, was found guilty of masterminding the plot and sentenced to 20 years by a Belgian court in February 2021.

 Cult-like  Iranian opposition group in France accused of bomb plot
Months later, Vandecasteele returned to Iran where he had spent years as an aid worker for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and other organisations. He was detained by the security services.

In an attempt to free him, the Belgian parliament then drafted a treaty that would allow prisoner exchanges with Iran.

Belgium-Iran treaty clears the way for Paris attack suspect to return home
But the Belgian opposition immediately charged that the agreement with Tehran was "tailor made" to permit Assadi s release, and NCRI exiles mounted street protests and a ferocious lobbying campaign.

As a result of this, and to the horror of Vandecasteele s family, the treaty was "suspended" last December. One week later, the aid worker was initially sentenced to 28 years imprisonment. At a second court session this week, another 12 years were added, along with the whipping.

In a reaction to the latest sentence, the NCRI, the main motor behind the drive to suspend the extradition treaty, calls the move "blackmail" aimed at forcing the Belgian government to release "the imprisoned terrorist diplomat Assadollah Assadi."

According to Iran s Civil Procedure Code, Vandecasteele has 20 days to appeal.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, the Constitutional Court will make its final decision on the legality of the suspension of the extradition treaty in March.