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'Relief after 455 days of nightmare': Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele finally released from Iran

09:02 30/05/2023

Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who has been detained in an Iranian prison since 24 February 2022, has finally been released and has returned to Belgium.

Prime minister Alexander De Croo made the announcement, saying: “One thing has always prevailed: we will not abandon an innocent compatriot. This is a responsibility that I take upon myself.”

Praising “the courage and strength of those close to him”, De Croo was perhaps more celebratory than others, who voiced fears that without a more structural solution to prevent such incidents from happening in the future, other Belgians in Iran could find themselves in the same nightmare.

“Belgium is powerless against Iran,” tweeted Peter De Roover, the leader of the Flemish nationalist opposition group in the Chamber.

De Roover is calling on the federal government to immediately suspend the extradition treaty signed with the Islamic republic, pointing out that Vandecasteele was only released in exchange for Belgium freeing a convicted terrorist.

“Tehran's policy of blackmail has fully succeeded,” said De Roover, adding that Belgium paid a high price for the release of an aid worker in exchange for letting convicted terrorist Assadi walk free.

Former secretary of state for asylum and migration Theo Francken (N-VA) spoke harshly of the case back in January, criticising Vandecasteele for travelling to Iran for “private reasons” against a series of “very explicit negative travel advisories”.

“A person who travels against the advice of the foreign ministry takes responsibility for it,” Francken said at the time.

Elsewhere in Belgium, the exchange was met with praise.

“A day to remember,” tweeted justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne. Elio Di Rupo, Walloon minister-president, expressed “relief for Olivier and his family after 455 days of nightmare”.

Vandecasteele was reunited with his family and friends over the weekend and described as not having lost his humour or enthusiasm despite being in a physically weakened state.

“Intellectually, he was fine,” explained a spokesperson for his support committee.

“We've rediscovered the Olivier of yesteryear, with his warmth, his humour even. But he had lost a lot of weight. He was very enthusiastic, even though he is a marked man who has suffered.”

A Belgian team met Vandecasteele in Muscat, the capital of Oman, for the exchange.

The aid worker was detained for a long time in inhumane conditions: isolation, constant light and lack of the slightest comfort. He also had to endure interrogation by the Iranian authorities, who alleged he was in the country to commit espionage.

“It is with immense relief that we are reunited with Olivier,” said Vandecasteele's family and friends in a statement. “A second battle now begins for Olivier and his family. Rebuilding what has been destroyed after 14 months of isolation, anguish, deprivation and lack of sleep.”

Now other Belgians trapped abroad are hoping for a similar outcome.

The parents of Tanguy Taller, who has been imprisoned in Cambodia for four years, are also appealing for help. Taller was sentenced to life imprisonment for drug trafficking, but his family insist he is innocent.

They claim that he was sentenced on the basis of a statement that was later retracted: “He was subjected to a sham trial in which all the rules of law were flouted and he received a heavy symbolic sentence for an offence he did not commit,” they said.

They are arguing that Vandecasteele's transfer sets a precedent and hope the foreign minnistry will make the same effort to free their own son.

The ministry confirmed that it is following Taller's case and that steps are being taken both in Cambodia and in Belgium to enable him to be repatriated.

According to the Belgian justice ministry, the government is aware of between 450 and 500 cases of Belgians imprisoned abroad.

Photo: Didier Lebrun/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons