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Iran: Belgian national sentenced to 40 years in prison for espionage

Brussels accuses Iran of providing little evidence for the charges against Belgian convicted of spying for US
The family of Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, say he has gone on hunger strike (AFP)

Iran has sentenced Belgian national Olivier Vandecasteele to 40 years in jail and 74 lashes over espionage charges, according to Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Vandecasteele was sentenced on Tuesday by an Iranian court, to 12 years and six months in prison for espionage, 12 years and six months for collaboration with hostile governments, and 12 years and six months for money laundering. In addition, the 41-year-old was fined $1m and sentenced to two years and six months for currency smuggling.

Under Iranian law, Vandecasteele is eligible for appeal after 12 years and six months. 

He was initially sentenced in December, to 28 years in jail. However, at his new trial the sentence was increased significantly. 

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According to the Iranian judiciary's Mizan news agency, Vandecasteele was found guilty of "espionage against the Islamic Republic of Iran for the benefit of foreign intelligence services".

In addition, the Belgian national was sentenced for the crime of "cooperation with the hostile government of the United States," as well as 74 lashes for "professional currency smuggling to the amount of $500,000".

Following the verdict, the Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Hadja Lahbib said that Belgium condemns "his arbitrary detention and is doing everything possible to put an end to it and to improve the conditions of his detention. 

"Iran has provided no official information regarding the charges against Olivier or his trial," added Lahbib.

According to the Tasnim news agency, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence suspected Vandecasteele had come to Iran under the guise of philanthropic activities and to spy on behalf of the US government and distribute material for anti-government activities. 

Prisoner bargaining chips

Over the past few years several foreigners and dual nationals have been detained in Iran, accused of espionage or other anti-state security offences. Often, the trials are held in secret, which rights groups have condemned as a denial of due process. 

Iran has not released any details about the charges against Vandecasteele. 

It's unclear whether they are related to the anti-government protests in Iran or a long-running shadow war with Israel and the US over the country's nuclear programme.

Vandecasteele's family has said that he has been in detention at an Iranian prison for months and has gone on a hunger strike. They added that he has been denied access to a lawyer of his choice and suffers serious health problems. 

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Belgium urged its nationals to leave Iran last month, warning that they face the risk of arbitrary arrest or an unfair trial.

Critics accuse Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West, something Iranian officials deny.

In 2021 an Iranian diplomat suspected by Belgian authorities of being a secret agent was convicted of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack in France against an exiled Iranian opposition group, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A Belgian court rejected the Vienna-based official's claim of diplomatic immunity, and Iranian authorities condemned the trial.

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