Supporters of a Belgian aid worker detained in Iran staged a Christmas Day protest in Brussels calling for his immediate release, with a spokesman questioning why a prisoner exchange treaty was being blocked.
About 50 people took part in the demonstration in pouring rain in the center of the Belgian capital, brandishing photos of aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele.
A spokesman for the campaign to free Vandecasteele, Olivier Van Steirtegem, said the rally took place because “it is the first year that Olivier has celebrated Christmas as a hostage in Iran”.
He said the situation was “unthinkable for his family”, who didn’t even know where Vandecasteele was being held.
Vandecasteele, 41, was kidnapped in February and has since been detained in conditions that the Belgian government has described as “inhumane”.
Last week, Iran handed him a 28-year prison sentence, sparking an already bitter debate over a stymied prisoner exchange treaty.
The Belgian government subsequently urged all Belgians in Iran, including dual nationals, to leave the country at the risk of being arbitrarily arrested and detained.
Belgium insists Vandecasteele is innocent and has been held hostage as Tehran attempts to force Brussels to release an Iranian agent convicted of terrorism.
Under a treaty signed by Belgium and Iran earlier this year, Vandecasteele could have been swapped for Iranian Assadollah Assadi.
Assadi, an Iranian diplomat stationed in Austria, was arrested in 2018 after German, French and Belgian law enforcement foiled a plot to detonate a bomb during a demonstration outside Paris by an Iranian opposition group in exile.
After three years in prison, he was sentenced last year in Belgium to 20 years in prison for terrorism.
But in early December, Belgium’s constitutional court suspended implementation of the prisoner exchange treaty pending a final ruling on its legality within the next three months.
Van Steirtegem said the Belgian government believes the blocked treaty is the “only way” to secure Vandecasteele’s release.
“The question is whether we can accept leaving a Belgian man to potentially die in an Iranian prison. All this because we don’t want to transfer a prisoner who has already served five years in prison from here.