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Belgian court paves way for Iran prisoner swap treaty

Priyanka Shankar
March 3, 2023

A controversial prisoner swap deal with Iran could go ahead under a Belgian court ruling. But the conditions attached mean the future of a Belgian aid worker remains unclear.

A picture of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele who was arrested in February last year in Tehran is seen.
Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele was arrested in February last year in TehranImage: HO/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

Belgium's top court has given a conditional green light to a controversial prisoner swap treaty with Iran. 

The legislation was passed in July last year in an effort to secure the release of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges Belgium says are fabricated. However, the treaty was slammed by some parliamentarians, Iranian dissidents, and critics of the regime in Tehran, who feared it would lead to the release of Assadollah Assadi — an Iranian diplomat convicted of a terror plot.  

Belgium's Constitutional Court has now ruled that the treaty can go ahead, but said in its judgment that the victims of the prisoner the government intends to exchange must be informed of the transfer, in turn giving them the chance to mount a legal challenge. 

"This is a good day for democracy in Belgium because the judicial authorities of this country took account of all the arguments … to say that, in fact, this treaty is constitutional. There’s no doubt: the Constitutional Court recognises that the treaty can enter into force," Vandecasteele's best friend Olivier Van Steirtegem told Belgian broadcaster LN24 after the judgement.

In a phone call with the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on March 1, Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pushed for Vandecasteele's release.

"My message was very clear: Olivier Vandecasteele is an innocent man and must be released immediately.

In the meantime, his inhuman conditions of detention must change," he said in a tweet.

Why was the treaty so controversial?

Vandecasteele, a 42-year-old former aid worker, was arrested and imprisoned in Tehran in February 2022. He was sentenced to 40 years behind bars earlier this year. 

Van Steirtegem has been campaigning for his friend ever since. An Amnesty International petition demanding Vandecasteele's release currently has more than 100,000 signatures .

Out of 131 Belgian parliamentarians, 79 voted in favor of the prisoner-exchange treaty designed to free him in July 2022, while 41 rejected it and 11 abstained.

The move was widely criticized by Iran's political movement in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), as well as members of the US Congress — Randy K.Weber, Louie Gohmert, and Brian Fitzpatrick — who sent a letter to the Belgian prime minister asking him to oppose the treaty. De Croo rejected accusations he was giving in to "blackmail."

A case calling for the treaty to be annulled was lodged in Belgium's top court last year. 

Belgian court to rule on Iran prisoner swap

Prisoner swaps often take place between autocracies and democracies when the latter is keen to bring their citizens home, and the former is keen to use this tactic to achieve political goals.

While the US, UK, and other nations have engaged in prisoner-exchange treaties to address similar suspected cases of hostage diplomacy, Belgian-Iranian parliamentarian Darya Safai  who has herself been imprisoned in Iran  believes that prisoner swaps will not work with Tehran.

"If Belgium appeases the regime in Iran in this manner, we are sending across a message that we are weak and are ready to give them what they want," she told DW in an interview last September.

After Friday's judgment, Van Steirtegem told Belgian broadcaster LN24 that "attempts to find all possible arguments that could be found in all possible elements of Belgian law must stop." 

He told DW Vandecasteele's life was at stake right now. 

A press conference is held by Olivier Vandecasteele's family and lawyers
Belgian aid-worker Olivier Vandecasteele's family, friends and lawyers have been pushing for his release for a yearImage: Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA/AFP

"Since his arrest a year ago, his health has been deteriorating and he is also in solitary confinement, which means he is in a cell two meters by three, with a hole in the cell to go to the toilet. There is a light which is constantly on, and there is no heating. He has nobody to talk to and cannot even meet his lawyers. We need to get him released soon," he said.

What happens next?

Nassim Papayianni, senior campaigner on Iran at Amnesty International, told DW that while Vandecasteele's release was important, Assadi being released earlier would also represent a risk for Iranian dissidents abroad.

“The international community, including Belgium and other European governments need to fulfill their obligations under international law, to duly punish attempted extrajudicial executions, other crimes under international law, and other unlawful acts committed by the Iranian authorities extraterritorially, to crush freedom of expression and peaceful dissent," she said.

A heavily armed policeman stands outside the courthouse during the trial of four persons, including an Iranian diplomate and Belgian-Iranian couple, before the Antwerp criminal court in Antwerp
A heavily armed policeman stands outside the courthouse during the trial of Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was sentenced to prison in Belgium last yearImage: Dirk Waem/BELGA/Getty Images/AFP

But Iranian human rights lawyer and former head of public interestl law at Oxford University Kaveh Moussavi told DW that "Assadi is not going anywhere just yet."

"The court makes it clear that any prisoner exchange shall be subject to individual judicial supervision in which the rights of the victims have to be judicially evaluated. It is much like a parole process," he said. "So if this takes place, then the prisoner exchange can take place."

Moussavi added that the decision is not the end of legal remedies. "It is still possible for the NCRI to appeal the decision at the European Court of Justice. So the judicial process is not yet over," he said.

Vandecasteele's family say there may still be a long way to go to free him. But in a tweet published on the "Free Olivier Vandecasteele" account after Friday's ruling, they say "there might finally be a light at the end of the tunnel!" 

Edited by: Maren Sass