As the Belgian parliament takes up a law allowing exchange of convicts, Iran International has learned that Tehran has jailed a Belgian aid worker since February.
The detention could be another example of the often-used Iranian tactic of imprisoning foreigners as hostages to exchange them with certain Iranians jailed in Western countries.
A draft law proposed by the Belgian government to the parliament could put the seal of approval on an agreement with Iran, which could lead to the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat serving a 20-year prison sentence in Belgium for planning a terror attack in Paris 4 years ago.
Iran’s security forces have detained Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, an aid worker who has served in various international humanitarian organizations since at least 2006, including, Médecins du Monde, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and Relief International.
Vandecasteele worked in India, Afghanistan, and Mali and later became the director of NRC’s Iran operations in 2015 and assumed the same position with Relief International in Iran in 2020. He played an important role during the height of the Covid pandemic in Iran, distributing humanitarian aid throughout the country.
In July 2021, Relief International ended its relationship with Vandecasteele. In an email to Iran International, Relief International said it is not aware of Vandecasteele’s detention in Iran, despite information at our disposal showing that officials of the aid organization were informed of his arrest.
On July 2, an informed source had told Iran International that at least two Belgian citizens are currently in prison in Iran. One of the two is apparently an Iranian-Belgian professor from Leuven University, but the identity of the second prisoner was unclear until further investigation revealed it was Olivier Vandecasteele.
In what appeared to be internal organizational issues, he was put aside as a manager of Relief International last year and he returned to Europe. But an informed source told Iran International’s Fardad Farahzad that this could have resulted from pressures by Iran’s interior ministry’s foreign citizens’ bureau.
Vandecasteele, however, later returned to Iran on a tourist visa to visit a friend. It is possible that his return to Iran was an arranged trap by Iranian intelligence to detain and exchange him with Assadi.
The agreement to allow Iranian convicts serving their prison terms in Belgium to return to Iran and presumably serve their remaining sentences there has now opened a real chance that Assadi, convicted of terrorism, will be allowed to go back and be received as a hero, as some Belgian media and politicians have pointed out.
It is unclear if strong objections to the government bill by foreign figures, the opposition and other lawmakers in Belgium will stop its approval. A parliamentary committee is set to start debating the bill on July 5.
In a letter to president of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives Eliane Tillieux, Former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former National Security Advisor James L. Jones and seven other US dignitaries denounced the proposed Belgian-Iranian prisoner transfer treaty.
In a video message Friday, Darya Safai, a member of the Belgian Parliament of Iranian descent, protested to the government’s decision to rush a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran.
Safai told Iran International that the bill does not exclude those in prison for terrorist activities and will pave the way for the release of Iranians involved in terrorism in Belgium. “My life and that of my husband, children, and so many others are in danger.”
Another Belgian lawmaker, Michael Freilich, has also questioned the government's “urgent” prisoner exchange plans. “Why does this all have to be so fast?” he asked the Parliament. “I strongly oppose any deal to release convicted terrorists from jail.”
Relief International was established by an American-Iranian, Farshad Rastegar, after the devastating Bam earthquake in Iran that killed 26,000 people on December 26, 2003.