'We had no other choice', says Justice minister after Iran prisoner exchange
Belgium had no other choice to free Olivier Vandecasteele than to swap him with convicted Iranian terrorist Assadollah Assadi, deputy prime minister and minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne told public broadcaster VRT on Friday evening. Vandecasteele is expected to land in Belgium later this evening.
According to Van Quickenborne, there were suggestions that Vandecasteele was facing the death penalty. "If we had not acted quickly, by not carrying out this operation, his death sentence might have been signed," he said. A Briton and a Swede have recently been executed in Iran, and a German citizen was sentenced to death.
"Olivier Vandecasteele did not have that time," Van Quickenborne said. "There was no other option possible for our country. Our intelligence and security services made that very clear."
"If we had not acted quickly, by not carrying out this operation, his death sentence might have been signed"
He also defended the fact that, in order to save time, constitutional article 167 was used rather than the transfer treaty concluded between Belgium and Iran. Had that treaty and the conditions attached to it by the Constitutional Court been used for its application, "the case could have dragged on for months", he said. Speaking to VTM News, prime minister Alexander De Croo used the same reasoning: "It would have endangered his life even more."
Article 167 "means that the king [in this case the prime minister] has independent power to conduct foreign policy", constitutional specialist Paul Van Orshoven of KU Leuven told VRT, confirming that the government does not need parliament's approval for this. The government can, however, be held accountable afterwards by the House of Representatives.
Despite widespread relief at the release of Vandecasteele, the prisoner exchange was also met with criticism from several corners. Flemish far-right opposition party Vlaams Belang welcomed Vandecasteele's release but questioned the circumstances. If there was effectively a prisoner swap with Iranian terrorist Assadollah Assadi, then the federal government "is facilitating Iranian terrorism", the party believes.
The National Council of Iranian Resistance in Belgium said in a press release that it strongly condemned the release of Assadi. "This violates a ruling of the Constitutional Court," it said, calling the exchange "a shameful concession to blackmail for terrorism and hostage-taking".
"The King had a telephone conversation with Mr Olivier Vandecasteele during his return trip to Belgium. Thanks to all those who worked to bring him back home"
After 455 days of imprisonment in degrading conditions, Belgian NGO worker Vandecasteele is expected to land at Melsbroek military airport, near Brussels, between 21.00 and 22.30 on Friday. He was flown from Iran's capital Tehran to Oman on Friday morning, where he was handed over to a Belgian delegation.
On Thursday evening, alleged Iranian diplomat Assadi, who was serving a 20-year sentence for terrorism, had been taken from his cell in a Belgian prison by federal police and transferred to Oman from Melsbroek airport.
Vandecasteele's family was received by the government on Friday morning to be informed of the news. Since then, they have been kept constantly updated on any developments. King Philippe phoned Vandecasteele during his journey to Belgium. "The King had a telephone conversation with Mr Olivier Vandecasteele during his return trip to Belgium. Thanks to all those who worked to bring him back home," the Royal Palace tweeted.
Belgian Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne © BELGA PHOTO KURT DESPLENTER