Iran freed a Belgian aid worker jailed in Tehran for 455 days on espionage charges, in exchange for Belgium freeing a former Iranian diplomat convicted in 2021 of a foiled bomb plot, the officials from both countries said on Friday.
The aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, was flown on Thursday from Tehran to Muscat, the capital of Oman, where the exchange took place, Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said on Friday.
“This time our compatriot Olivier Vandecasteele is going to Belgium,” said Mr. De Croo in a video address from Brussels, confirming that the government has secured the release of Mr. Vandecasteele. He added that Mr. Vandecasteele underwent a medical examination to check his health after more than a year “under very difficult conditions.”
Mr. Vandecasteele worked in Iran for five years until he lost his job in March 2021 and left the country. When he returned to collect some items in February last year, he was arrested by Iranian authorities, who sentenced him to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of espionage, money laundering and currency smuggling. The Belgian government has called the detention of Mr. Vandecasteele and said that Iran has not provided information on the case.
In exchange for Mr. Vandecasteele’s release, Oman negotiated the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who was arrested in Germany in 2020 on charges of plotting a bomb attack at a meeting of opposition leaders in Iran in France in 2018. The attack was prevented, but he was later convicted in Brussels in 2021 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Photos posted Friday by Mizan, a news agency run by Iran’s judiciary, showed Mr. Assadi arriving in Tehran.
In a statement posted on Twitter earlier on Friday, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, thanked the Omani government for the exchange and sending of Mr. more than two years against international law” back to Iran.
Belgium’s Parliament approved a controversial deal with Iran in July last year that allowed for a prisoner exchange between the two countries. Critics of the treaty say the country has surrendered to a form of blackmail from Iran, putting foreigners at greater risk of being held hostage.
On Friday, the Belgian authorities said they had not used the agreement to negotiate Mr. Vandecasteele’s release, according to the Belgian news agency. However, analysts say, Iran is making a practice of using Westerners as pawns.
“It has been a consistent policy of the Iranian government for decades, to use the hostage-taking of foreign nationals and dual nationals for foreign policy purposes,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York. “Unfortunately it continues to work for them,” he added, noting that each exchange of prisoners “only encourages the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to take more hostages.”
In a statement on Friday, Amnesty International praised Mr. Vandecasteele’s release but said it was “deeply troubled” by an exchange agreement that only perpetuates a “climate of impunity for extraterritorial targeting of dissidents in Iran for extrajudicial executions, torture, and other ill-treatment.”
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian scholar, was released in 2020 in exchange for three Iranian men imprisoned in Thailand for organizing a failed plot to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012 .
Earlier this month, Iran released two French citizens, Benjamin Brière and Bernard Phelan, after they were accused of espionage. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratliffe, a British-Iranian, was released in March after being held for 6 years as a diplomatic pawn, according to her family.
Ghaemi noted that the latest exchange took place against the backdrop of a surge in killings in the country. At least 209 people have been killed since January, according to the United Nations.
More than two dozen foreigners and dual nationals are still being held in Iranian prisons.
Koba Ryckewaert and Leily Nikounazar contributed to the report.