Brussels summit controversy: Foreign minister under heavy criticism
Coalition partners Ecolo-Groen and PS were particularly hard on Foreign minister Hadja Lahbib (MR) on Wednesday in the continuing controversy over visas issued to an Iranian delegation attending the Brussels Urban Summit. They accused the minister of not fully informing parliament last Thursday, and of contradictions in her statements.
The Brussels Urban Summit, which took place from 12 to 15 June, was attended by a delegation of 14 Iranians, including the mayor of Tehran. Lahbib's administration issued their visas. She was aked for further explanations in the Chamber on Wednesday, with prime minister Alexander De Croo.
De Croo referred to the context in which the invitations to the Iranian delegation were sent. This was in March when Belgium was in the middle of negotiations for the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, the NGO worker who was held in an Iranian prison for more than a year.
"The question that really matters: is a human life worth a visa?"
After the release of Vandecasteele and three other Europeans, De Croo said the door was open to improving the situation of other Europeans imprisoned in Iran. In these circumstances, at the beginning of June, five days before the start of the Urban Summit, his cabinet was faced with the question of whether visas could be issued. A refusal would cause a significant diplomatic incident and would not improve the fate of the jailed Europeans, De Croo said. "The question that really matters: is a human life worth a visa?"
Neither desirable nor opportune
Lahbib used the same argument. She reiterated that the invitation by former Brussels secretary of state Pascal Smet to the mayor of Tehran was "neither desirable nor opportune". This "fait accompli" meant she could do little more than issue the visas. Last week, Lahbib criticised Smet, who resigned a few days ago after it emerged that the government had also paid for the Iranian delegation's accommodation.
Her explanation was met with little sympathy. "The responsibility is overwhelmingly shared," said Wouter De Vriendt (Groen) in the chamber. "Throwing a secretary of state under the bus is one thing, but shifting the entire responsibility is not in line with reality."
"There are people here and in Iran who are in more danger today than before 8 June"
Malik Ben Achour (PS) argued that the urgent delivery of the visas allowed the "barbarians" of the Iranian regime to do their dirty work in Brussels for three days. Ben Achour was referring to members of the delegation who filmed opponents in Brussels. "There are people here and in Iran who are in more danger today than before 8 June," he said.
Melissa Depraetere (Vooruit), Smet's party colleague, said Lahbib was trying to evade responsibility. "If you say there was negative advice from the foreign ministry and you did it anyway, who is responsible?"
© BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND