The Belgian humanitarian Olivier Vandecasteele, released Friday after fifteen months of detention in Iran, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism, was repatriated to Belgium where he found his relatives in the evening.

The military plane transporting him from Oman, the Gulf sultanate which served as a “facilitator” in this exchange, landed shortly after 9:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. GMT) at the Melsbroek base, near Brussels.

In a dark suit and sneakers, visibly thinner but smiling, the 42-year-old French-speaking Belgian was hugged for long minutes by the dozen relatives who were waiting for him on the tarmac, his mother in particular, according to images from the Belgian channel RTL-TVI .

Olivier Vandecasteele was not to speak publicly immediately.

“Finally free!” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced at the end of the morning. Without mentioning the case of the diplomat Assadollah Assadi, whom Belgium agreed to deliver to Tehran to obtain the return of its national.

This diplomat, at the time stationed in Vienna, was arrested on July 1, 2018 in Germany and then found guilty by the Belgian courts of having fomented a plan for an explosive attack which was to target a meeting of the Council the day before. of the Iranian Resistance (NCRI, coalition of opponents), near Paris.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in February 2021 in Antwerp (north) for “attempted terrorist assassinations”, to the chagrin of Iran which denounced a violation of his diplomatic immunity.

For his part, Mr. Assadi arrived in the early evening at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, greeted by Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi and a senior official of the judicial system.

According to an image from Iran’s Fars news agency, the pair greeted him with flowers and gifts.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reaffirmed that Assadollah Assadi had been sentenced “in violation of international law”.

Members of the Iranian opposition in exile, who tried – unsuccessfully – to oppose this exchange, immediately denounced this outcome, judging that Belgium had paid “a shameful ransom”.

“This will encourage the ruling religious fascism in Iran to continue its crimes,” the NCRI said.

While welcoming the return of Olivier Vandecasteele, the NGO Amnesty International said it was “very concerned” by the release of Mr. Assadi, who “risks contributing to the climate of impunity” enjoyed in his eyes by Iranian agents. .

A treaty for the mutual transfer of convicts signed in 2022 between Belgium and Iran and which entered into force on April 18 had paved the way for this exchange.

But the Belgian executive finally resorted, to deliver Mr. Assadi, to article 167 of the Constitution granting him full prerogatives in matters of foreign policy, Belgian government sources explained on Friday.

By using this other route “we did not warn the Iranian opposition”, and thus were able to buy time, said one of these sources.

In March, the Belgian Constitutional Court, seized by the NCRI, had set limits on the use of the bilateral treaty of 2022, specifying that Iranian opponents in exile must be warned of a possible decision to transfer Mr. Assadi in order to be able to oppose it in court.

Dozens of Westerners are detained in Iran, described by their supporters as innocent people used by Tehran as leverage and bargaining chip.

Arrested on February 24, 2022 in Tehran, Olivier Vandecasteele, 42, was sentenced for “espionage” to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes.

His family, who must speak to the press on Saturday morning in Brussels, had been denouncing for months the ill-treatment inflicted on their loved one, detained in solitary confinement without access to care.

The release of Olivier Vandecasteele comes two weeks after that of two French nationals, Benjamin Brière, 37, imprisoned for three years in Mashhad prison in northeastern Iran, and Franco-Irish Bernard Phelan, 64 years, who had meanwhile spent seven months in detention.

Thirty-five nationals of a dozen EU member states, including four French, are still detained in Iran, according to the head of French diplomacy Catherine Colonna.

26/05/2023 22:30:59 – Bruxelles (AFP) – © 2023 AFP