'We must be united if we want Vandecasteele to come home'

Prime minister Alexander De Croo has called for unity around Olivier Vandecasteele, the NGO worker imprisoned in Iran. "Iran is trying to divide us. Let's not let them. We are all trying to save the life of an innocent Belgian," he said on Thursday.

Rumours have been circulating for days about the possible release of Vandecasteele, who has been held in Iran since February last year. On 21 April, De Croo spoke to Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and reiterated his call for Vandecasteele's immediate release and, in the meantime, for a "significant improvement in prison conditions".

Iran is demanding the release of Assadollah Assadi, the mock diplomat imprisoned in Belgium for his role in a foiled terrorist attack in Paris. These demands follow the coming into force last week of a treaty allowing Belgian prisoners in Iran to serve their sentences in their home country and vice versa.

No imminent exchange

Belgium is examining the request for Assadi, De Croo said on Thursday. But there is no question of an imminent exchange with Vandecasteele, as Justice and Foreign Affairs ministers Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD) and Hadja Lahbib (MR) stressed on Wednesday.

"His conditions of detention amount to torture"

De Croo also denied Iranian reports about the conditions of Vandecasteele's detention. Iranian media have reported that he is being held in a suite where he is given three hot meals a day. However, De Croo said Vandecasteele sleeps and eats on the floor, has no access to medical care and is constantly being manipulated. "His conditions of detention amount to torture," he said.

He stressed that all parties must be "united", and reiterated that travel to Iran is strongly discouraged.


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