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'His life is at stake': Belgian aid worker remains trapped in Iranian prison

11:11 19/04/2023

Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele is being transferred to a new prison in Iran as negotiations between the two countries over his release continue to go nowhere.

Vandecasteele was arrested for espionage charges that both he and Belgium say were fabricated in order to provide Iran with a means to bargain over the release of some of its own citizens currently imprisoned in Belgium over terrorism-related charges.

Vandecasteele has been in an Iranian prison for more than a year and was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes, according to Iranian media. Belgium has called the sentencing trial a sham.

Amnesty International hung posters throughout Brussels calling for the former NGO worker’s release and Belgium officially applied for Vandecasteele’s transfer back to the country earlier this week.

Belgium’s foreign minister Hadja Lahbib met her Iranian counterpart on Monday, where her cabinet said she again pleaded for an improvement in Vandecasteele's detention conditions.

It is thought that Iran is holding Vandecasteele hostage as leverage to secure the release of Iranian mock-diplomat Assadollah Assadi, imprisoned in Belgium for his role in a foiled terror attack.

A treaty exists that allows for a transfer of prisoners between Belgium and Iran. It was challenged before the Constitutional Court, which rejected the appeal in early March. But the text only officially entered into force on Tuesday.

The Belgian government is therefore using it to officially transfer the application to Iran.

The Constitutional Court ruled that victims of a convicted person must be informed in advance of the transfer so that a judge can test its legality.

Assadi is serving a 20-year sentence for planning a terrorist attack against the Iranian opposition demonstrating in Villejuif, near Paris, meaning his victims include the Iranian opposition – which has already indicated that it will challenge any transfer of the terrorist in court.

Vandecasteele's supporters announced that the Belgian was transferred to the notorious Evin prison in the Iranian capital Tehran a week ago, where he sits in solitary confinement, suffering from muscle and nerve pain and receiving insufficient nutrition.

“Olivier is completely spent,” the campaigners said. “He cannot remain the plaything of talks between two countries.”

Vandecasteele's family and friends have long been rallying for his release, emphasising his deteriorating health and the inhumane conditions of Iranian prisons. They were able to speak with Vandecasteele by phone last weekend.

“He told us that he had been moved from his unknown location to Evin prison, section 209 (the prison within the prison) and that he had been there for 10 days already,” his family wrote.

“Olivier is still locked up in solitary confinement, in a cell with no windows, no mattress, no blanket and not even a change of clothes. He is cold and can no longer sleep due to the unbearable pain in his legs that he was already suffering from during the appeal on 13 March.”

Vandecasteele's family say he is not receiving any treatment for his health conditions: “He can no longer stand for more than five minutes because of muscle and nerve pain that is getting worse every day.

"Olivier has been visited by a doctor but is not receiving any treatment for his health problems. His conditions of detention have not changed, with insufficient food to ensure his health.

"Mentally, he is at the end of his tether. He said he could no longer bear the pressure exerted on him. The daily psychological torture and the passage of time are putting his life in danger.”

Manon, the niece and goddaughter of Olivier Vandecasteele, announced that she will lock herself up for 24 hours in a cell on the Grand-Place of Tournai from next Saturday evening in order to demonstrate the conditions of her godfather's detention and draw the political world's attention to the situation.

She has asked that those who wish to support her write a letter to the Belgian politicians “in charge of Olivier's life”.

Pens and forms will be available on site and a ballot box will be set up to collect the various letters.

Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons