“It’s been more than 203 days since I last saw my best friend,” says Olivier Van Steirtegem, running his fingers quickly over his piano at his home in Brussels, playing an enchanting jazz tune. It pays tribute to his friend, Olivier Vandecasteele, who was arrested on February 24 by the Iranian authorities on charges of espionage.
“This song I’m playing is John Bocy by Brad Mehldau. It was the last thing Olivier and I listened to before he was arrested by Iran,” Steirtegem, 42, a furniture store owner, told TBEN. He is now completely isolated in a cell and in a bad psychological state. He eats. not well, has an infection and has lost a lot of weight”,
Vandecasteele, a 41-year-old humanitarian aid worker, has been living and working in Iran since 2015. He had explored the possibilities of leaving the country and eventually starting a new project.
“But the Iranian authorities had other plans for him,” Steirtegem said.
Olivier Van Steirtegem, right, the friend of Vandecasteele, has started a petition to ask the Belgian government to take action to release his friend
He flipped through an album of their photos together and remembered the fateful day in February when he got the phone call about Vandecasteele’s arrest.
“The neighbors said he was in his apartment in Tehran waiting for a pizza delivery boy. But when his doorbell rang, instead of the pizza delivery guy, the Iranian authorities broke into his apartment and arrested him,” Steirtegem said.
‘We’re sending a message that we’re weak’
In order to release him, the Belgian government ratified a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran on 21 July. Under the treaty, Belgium would release Assadollah Assadi – an Iranian diplomat who served a 20-year prison term in Belgium for plotting a bomb attack on a meeting organized by rivals of the Iranian regime in France in 2018 – in France. exchange for Olivier Vandecasteele.
But the treaty has been rejected by some members of the Belgian parliament, including some Iranian dissidents, critics of the Tehran regime and human rights groups.
They say the accord will give Iran a license to continue terrorism and hostage-taking in Iran and around the world.
“If Belgium appeases the regime in Iran in this way, we are sending a message that we are weak and ready to give them what they want,” Darya Safai, an Iranian-Belgian member of the Belgian parliament, of the Flemish Parliament nationalist party, TBEN told.
“I myself was imprisoned in Iran because I fought for women’s rights. I fully understand what Olivier’s family is going through. But this is not the only isolated case. There are other European hostages in Iran and we need a better solution to make sure make sure they’re all released,’ she said.
‘Not fair to keep an innocent man in prison’
Olivier Vandecasteele was arrested and imprisoned in Iran on charges of espionage, which the Belgian government believes is unfounded.
Besides Vandecasteele, Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Dijalali and French tourist Benjamin Briere are some of the other Western nationals held hostage in Iran.
Out of 131 Belgian MPs, 79 voted in favor of the prisoner exchange treaty. 41 rejected it and 11 abstained.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo acknowledged it was a difficult decision but said he should consider the pleas of Vandecasteele’s family.
“It’s never fair dealing with a terrorist, but it’s also not fair to keep an innocent man in prison,” he said in response to criticism of the treaty.
According to TBEN, a lawyer representing Iran’s National Council of Resistance (NCRI) – an Iranian opposition group in exile – said the Brussels appeals court had agreed to cross-examine the case before allowing the exchange.
The court will legally challenge the Belgian government’s decision during a hearing that starts on September 18.
Belgian MP: ‘Negotiate by force’
Prisoner exchanges often take place between autocracies and democracies where the latter are eager to bring their citizens back home, and the former are eager to use this tactic to achieve their political goals.
They can take place by exchanging people who are being held captive, or by exchanging money, as in the case of British Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, where the UK paid Iran money to guarantee her release.
But Belgian MP Safai explains that prisoner swaps don’t work with Iran and that the only way to negotiate with the country is by force.
“That is the only language the ayatollahs understand. So sanctions solutions might work better. It is important that the West takes a united position in the confrontation with Iran. Only then can you guarantee security in Europe and stop it.” the process of Iran taking people hostage,” she told TBEN.
Many Iranians in Belgium oppose the release of Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi who was convicted in Belgium last year for his role in a bomb attack
At a press conference in Brussels last week hosted by the NCRI, John Bercow, a former British politician who was Speaker of the House of Commons, also shared a similar view, stressing that such a prison swap would not be fruitful in the long run.
“If you give the beast what it wants, the beast will repeatedly follow the same tactics. We need to look at the bigger picture and not just focus on isolated cases,” he said.
Steirtegem understands the complexity of this case as it involves exchanging an innocent person for a terrorist. But he believes this is the only way to get his friend free.
“I may be biased, but I think that Olivier needs all the support of the Belgian government at the moment. This will also give the Belgians the impression that their government cares about innocent people like Olivier,” he said.
Steirtegem has also started a petition, asking the Belgian government to allow the early release of his friend. More than 25,000 people have now signed it.
Could Iran’s Nuclear Deal Offer an Opportunity?
While a final court decision is pending, Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a British lecturer in international politics at the University of Cambridge who specializes in Iran, told TBEN that the nuclear talks with Iran could also provide an opportunity for the West to engage with Iran. negotiate.
“The Americans have advised Belgium not to proceed with this prison swap, as they want to add to the nuclear negotiations a larger prisoner swap, involving both prisoners from some European countries and Americans,” she told TBEN.
Three members of the US Congress, Randy K.Weber, Louie Gohmert and Brian Fitzpatrick, have sent a letter to the Belgian Prime Minister asking them to oppose the treaty.
“I think Belgium feels that the time is right and that there is no guarantee that negotiations with the nuclear deal will go ahead, so they don’t want to wait and let their citizens in Tehran wait for something on a larger international scale to happen. place,” Farmanfarmaian added.
However law and politics shape the future of the treaty, Steirtegem has not lost hope.
“I know it’s going to be a long fight, but I’m hoping to get a call from the government saying, ‘Okay, listen, everything is cleared up and Olivier will be back before Christmas,'” he said.
“That’s what I and his family are looking forward to now,” he added.
Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar