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Family raise concerns about Belgian imprisoned in Iran
The family of a Belgian aid worker is sounding the alarm about his isolated incarceration in an Iranian prison.
Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, has been imprisoned in Iran since 24 February and has had little communication with his family.
They received an unexpected video call from him recently, explaining that his physical condition was rapidly deteriorating, reports De Standaard.
Vandecasteele is reportedly locked up in a windowless prison basement and is losing his fingernails.
The family is also concerned about his mental health, with friend Olivier Van Streitegem explaining on their behalf that “he's almost completely out of his mind. He told us so himself”.
His family found this admission especially alarming as Vandecasteele has extensive experience in places of conflict. He’s worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council as well as other humanitarian agencies.
“We are very worried about that statement, because he’s someone who can take a beating,” Van Streitegem said. “Don't forget that he used to live in Kabul.”
Vandecasteele’s family is unsure about the exact location of his imprisonment in Iran. They had thought he was being held in the Evin prison in Tehran, but this is no longer certain.
There’s also a lack of information about any legal proceedings against Vandecasteele in Iran. It was previously stated that he stood accused of espionage, but this has been denied by Belgium’s minister of justice Vincent Van Quickenborne.
False imprisonment for prisoner swap?
In the past, Belgium and Iran have made agreements regarding prisoner swaps. Iran has asked for the return of convicted terrorist Assadollah Assadi, and some have theorised that Vandecasteele was falsely imprisoned in order to be used as a bargaining chip in a prisoner trade.
The Iranian resistance movement NCRI is opposed to such a transfer. A Belgian judge is expected to rule on the matter at the end of the month, but a potentially lengthy legal battle is expected.
Vandecasteele’s family and friends are asking the Iranian authorities to release him, or at the very least remove him from solitary confinement, give him a cell with a window, allow him regular contact with Belgium and enable him to secure legal representation.
“He asked how long he had to stay [in prison],” Van Streitegem said of their last call. “Nobody had a real answer to that. But when he was told it would be months, he burst into tears.”
Photo: Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, Olivier Van Streiteghem, Vandecasteele’s mother, sister Nathalie and prime minister Alexander De Croo (right) at meeting in July 2022 © Belga/Benoit Doppagne