Belgian Aid Worker and Iranian Diplomat Freed in Prisoner Swap

Iran freed a Belgian aid worker imprisoned in Tehran for 455 days on charges of spying, in exchange for Belgium releasing a former Iranian diplomat who was convicted in 2021 of a thwarted bomb plot.

The aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, was flown late Thursday from Tehran to Muscat, the capital of Oman, where the exchange took place, Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said on Friday.

“At this moment our compatriot Olivier Vandecasteele is on his way to Belgium,” Mr. De Croo said in a video address from Brussels, confirming that the government had secured Mr. Vandecasteele’s release. He added that Mr. Vandecasteele had undergone medical examinations to assess his health after more than a year “under very difficult conditions.”

Mr. Vandecasteele had worked in Iran for five years until he lost his job in March 2021 and left the country. When he returned to retrieve some belongings in February of last year, he was arrested by Iranian authorities, who sentenced him to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of espionage, money laundering and currency smuggling. The Belgian government had called Mr. Vandecasteele’s imprisonment arbitrary and said Iran had provided no information on the case.

In exchange for Mr. Vandecasteele being freed, Oman negotiated the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who was arrested in Germany in 2020 on accusations of plotting a bomb attack at a meeting of Iranian opposition leaders in France in 2018. He was later convicted in Brussels in 2021 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Asadollah Assadi, “the innocent diplomat of our country, who was illegally detained in Germany and Belgium for more than two years against international law, is now on his way back to his homeland,” said Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday.

Belgium’s Parliament approved a much-criticized treaty with Iran in July of last year that allowed for prisoner exchanges between the two countries. Critics of the treaty said that the country was surrendering to a form of blackmail from Iran, which puts foreigners more at risk of being taken hostage.

Koba Ryckewaert and Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.

Cora Engelbrecht is a reporter and story editor on the International desk, based in London. She joined The Times in 2016.  @CoraEngelbrecht

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