Distraught family of a Belgian national held in Iran appealed to their government on Tuesday to do its utmost to get him freed after he was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges including spying that Brussels has denounced as fake.
The sentence imposed on aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, reported by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, was more severe than the 28-year term Belgium had reported in December.
Vandecasteele was convicted of four charges including espionage against the Islamic Republic, cooperating with Tehran’s arch-foe the United States, currency smuggling and money laundering, Tasnim reported.
It said Vandecasteele, who was arrested while on a visit to Iran in February last year, could appeal the verdict. Vandecasteele has denied all the charges.
Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib condemned Vandecasteele’s “arbitrary detention” on Twitter and said Iran’s ambassador to Brussels would be summoned in protest at the sentencing.
“The family is devastated by the news,” Olivier Van Steirtegem, who is Vandecasteele’s best friend and has been acting as the family’s spokesperson, told Reuters.
“Olivier is a victim, a hostage,” Van Steirtegem said, adding that the Belgian government should do everything possible to free Vandecasteele and condemn Iran’s “hostage diplomacy”.
In December, Belgium’s justice minister said Vandecasteele was in prison “for a fabricated series of crimes” and had been sentenced as retribution for a 20-year jail term Belgian courts imposed on an Iranian diplomat in 2021.
Assadolah Assadi was found guilty of attempted terrorism after a foiled plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exile group opposed to the Islamic Republic, near Paris in June 2018.
(This story has been refiled to remove an extraneous word from the headline)