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Iran Sentences Belgian Aid Worker to 28 Years

Vandecasteele was arrested in February and is reportedly being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison

Iran has imposed a 28-year jail term on a Belgian aid worker, officials and his family said Wednesday, stirring an already bitter debate over a stalled prisoner exchange treaty.

Belgian ministers briefed 41-year-old Olivier Vandecasteele’s distraught family late Tuesday after learning about the sentence from a call with Iran’s justice minister.

“At the end of November we learned he would be sentenced in Iran to a prison term of 28 years for a series of fabricated crimes,” justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told parliament.

Vandecasteele was arrested in February and is reportedly being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, in conditions Van Quickenborne described as “inhumane”.

Belgium insists he is innocent, effectively held as a hostage in Tehran’s efforts to force Belgium to release an Iranian agent convicted of terrorism.

“Mr. Vandecasteele’s arrest is a direct consequence of the condemnation of the diplomat by our country,” the justice minister told the Belgian parliament’s justice committee.

“Since the arrest of this person in our country, the threat emanating from Iran has greatly increased.”

News of Vandecasteele’s sentence, which has not been publicly confirmed by Iranian authorities, has revived debate in Belgium over a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s government has described this in the past as the only option for a transfer, and the family spokesman told AFP that this remained the position at Tuesday’s meeting.

The treaty was signed with Iran earlier this year and, while not tailored explicitly for Vandecasteele, the justice minister confirmed that he would have been eligible for exchange.

– Family ‘devastated’ –

But last week, Belgium’s constitutional court suspended the implementation of treaty pending a final ruling on its legality within the next three months.

“The family are devastated,” Olivier Van Steirtegem, a spokesman for the family told AFP. “There’s no Plan B”.

“Can you imagine? If there’s no solution he could stay in prison until 2050. He’ll be almost 70,” he said, urging Belgium to find a way to revive the treaty.

Quickenborne, the family spokesman said, had received a call from his Iranian counterpart communicating the court’s verdict — but that they had no details on the charges.

Opponents of the Iranian government challenged the deal, which they argue was “tailor-made” to permit the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat sentenced last year to 20 years in prison.

An Antwerp court convicted Assadi of supplying explosives to a couple from Belgium who were to travel to Paris to target a meeting of Iran’s exiled opposition.

Iran reacted with fury to the sentencing and the stalled prisoner exchange treaty was proposed as a way to win Vandecasteele’s release, despite concerns it would be seen to reward hostage-taking.

Some opposition MPs and foreign policy experts have warned that the prisoner exchange treaty would only increase the threat posed by rogue regimes seeking to kidnap Belgian citizens as collateral.

But the government has no other idea how to free the aid worker.

“To stick with the language of the Constitutional Court, he also enjoys ‘the right to life’,” Van Quickenborne told the committee.

“He is a compatriot who was arrested. Innocent. An innocent person arrested in February and imprisoned in inhumane circumstances.”

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