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Belgium court sentences Iranian envoy to 20 years in jail over Paris bomb plot

Antwerp trial was the first of an Iranian official for suspected terrorism in Europe since Iran's 1979 revolution
A heavily armed policeman stands outside the courthouse in Antwerp (AFP)

An Iranian diplomat accused of planning to bomb a meeting of an exiled opposition group was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday. The sentencing concluded the first trial of an Iranian official for suspected terrorism in Europe since Iran's 1979 revolution.

Assadolah Assadi was found guilty of attempted terrorism after a foiled plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) near Paris in June 2018, Belgian prosecution lawyers and civil parties to the prosecution said.

Three of Assadi's accomplices, dual Iranian-Belgians, were handed jail terms of between 15 and 18 years and stripped of their Belgian citizenship.

The third counsellor at Iran's embassy in Vienna, Assadi was arrested in Germany before being transferred to Belgium for trial. 

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French officials have said he was running an Iranian state intelligence network and was acting on orders from Tehran.

Assadi did not attend his hearings in Antwerp, which were held behind closed doors amid high security, and neither he, not his lawyer, have commented.

In March, he warned authorities of possible retaliation by unidentified groups if he was found guilty, according to a police document obtained by Reuters. 

The courtroom was heavily guarded, with armoured vehicles outside and police helicopters overhead.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry told the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency on 24 January that Assadi's diplomatic immunity from prosecution had been violated and that he was a victim of a Western trap.

Former US President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani gave the keynote address at the Iranian opposition rally in Villepinte, north of the French capital, which was attended by diplomats from many countries.

Prosecution lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier said outside the court in Antwerp: "The ruling shows two things: a diplomat doesn't have immunity for criminal acts... and the responsibility of the Iranian state in what could have been carnage."

'Dressed as a tourist'

Investigators determined that Assadi brought the explosives for the plot with him on a commercial flight to Austria from Iran, according to Belgium's federal prosecutor.

Assadi was charged with "attempted murders of a terrorist nature" and "taking part in the activity of a terrorist group".

Iran had warned even before the conviction that it would not recognise the trial or the verdict, denying any official role in the plot and insisting Assadi ought to have enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

But investigators concluded that he was an Iranian agent working under diplomatic cover.

They showed the court surveillance pictures of Assadi dressed as a tourist, in a hat and with a camera, handing a Belgian-Iranian couple a package in Luxembourg on June 28 2018, two days before the rally.

The couple, Nasimeh Naami, 36, and Amir Saadouni, 40, were found to have accepted from Assadi a half-kilo of TATP explosives and a detonator. 

Naami, painted in court as highly manipulative, received an 18-year sentence. Saadouni was given 15 years.


Belgium-based Iranian former dissident Mehrdad Arefani was found to have been an accomplice of Assadi's who had been due to guide the couple at the rally. 

He was the only defendant to agree to appear in court for the sentencing and sat impassively as he was jailed for 17 years.

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Belgian officers halted the couple's car with the bomb on board on the day of the event, preventing what the NCRI's lawyers said would have been a "bloodbath". 

Later that year, the French government accused Iran's intelligence service of being behind the operation, a charge the Islamic Republic has furiously denied.

The ruling comes at a sensitive time for Western relations with Tehran. 

New US President Joe Biden is considering whether to lift economic sanctions on Iran reimposed by Trump and rejoin fellow world powers in the historic 2015 nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic.

While the European Union has imposed human rights sanctions on Iranian individuals, it has sought closer diplomatic and business ties with Tehran.

But the EU says it cannot turn a blind eye to terrorism, including two killings in the Netherlands and a failed assassination attempt in Denmark, blamed on Iran.

'Brave little Belgium'

"It's an historic day, it's a day of justice," said Rik Vanreusel, a lawyer for one of the civil parties. 

"We can be proud of brave little Belgium, who decided not to just expel diplomats but to prosecute, imprison and condemn heinous international acts of terrorism," he told reporters.

One of the defendants' lawyers said he would recommend an appeal, although it was not clear if Assadi would do so.

"It was established that the Iranian regime uses terrorism as statecraft and the highest levels of the Iranian regime are involved," Shahin Gobadi, a Paris-based spokesman for the opposition People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, which is part of the NCRI, said outside the court.

Iran has repeatedly dismissed the charges, calling the attack allegations a "false flag" stunt by the NCRI, which it considers a terrorist group.

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