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Who is Olivier Vandecasteele? Iran jails Belgian aid worker for 28 years – family

Who is Olivier Vandecasteele? Iran jails Belgian aid worker for 28 years - family

Iran has sentenced a Belgian aid worker to 28 years in prison on unknown charges, his family has said.

Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, was arrested and charged with espionage during a brief visit to Tehran in February.

Who is Olivier Vandecasteele? Iran jails Belgian aid worker for 28 years - family
Olivier Vandecasteele was arrested in February after returning to Tehran for a brief visit.

His family said on Wednesday that he was sentenced during a meeting with Belgium’s prime minister.

Although there has been no confirmation from Iran, the news comes just days after Belgium’s constitutional court halted a contentious prisoner exchange treaty.

Iran wants to swap Mr Vandecasteele for Assadollah Assadi, its alleged top intelligence official in Europe. Last year, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium for plotting to bomb a rally of an exiled Iranian opposition group.

Mr Vandecasteele spent six years in Iran working for the Norwegian Refugee Council and other aid organizations.

He left the country last year, but returned in February against the advice of the Belgian government to close down his apartment in Tehran.

During his brief visit, he was detained by Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) agents and taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where a number of European and American citizens are being held on spying charges.

His family claims that while in detention, he was subjected to “inhumane conditions” that amounted to torture.

They claim he has spent the entire time in solitary confinement in a windowless basement cell and has suffered from a variety of health issues.

Who is Olivier Vandecasteele? Iran jails Belgian aid worker for 28 years - family
The latest picture of Olivier Vandecasteele from a mobile phone in November

On 28 November, Belgian consular officials were allowed to speak to Mr Vandecasteele for the first time in seven weeks, according to his family.

He informed them that he had appeared in court without the knowledge of Belgian diplomats or his Iranian lawyers.

During the hearing, he was convicted of all charges brought against him without being told what he was accused of doing, he claimed. His court-appointed lawyer did not even appear in court.

Mr Vandecasteele also informed consular officials that he began a partial hunger strike in mid-November to protest his treatment.

His family said in a statement on Wednesday that Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo informed them that he had been sentenced to 28 years in prison and that the only way to secure his release was through a prisoner swap.

“It is no longer a matter for debate but of life or death,” the statement added. “Are we choosing to leave an innocent Belgian in Iran’s jails until he is 69?”

“What is going on within Belgian institutions for the fate of a Belgian victim to mean nothing?”

Mr De Croo’s office said he had promised them to “continue to explore all possible avenues that could lead to return of Olivier Vandecasteele”.

In June, his government introduced legislation to ratify the prisoner exchange treaty with Iran, which would allow Assadollah Assadi to be returned to Tehran to serve the remainder of his sentence in exchange for Mr Vandecasteele’s release.

However, the Iranian opposition group targeted by Assadi and human rights activists warned that it would violate the victims’ right to life and risk encouraging Iranian agents to commit illegal acts abroad in order to crush dissent.

The Belgian constitutional court suspended the treaty last Thursday, pending a final ruling within three months, stating that “Belgium knows or must know that Iran will not actually enforce [Assadi’s] sentence.”

The Iranian foreign ministry said it was saddened that “political views” had affected bilateral ties and that it hoped the treaty would be allowed.