Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele was arrested on February 24, 2022, in Iran. But was Vandecasteele taken hostage as a token of the implementation of an agreement that Tehran and Brussels had been negotiating for months? In January 2023, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, a $1 million fine (€910,000) and 74 lashes for espionage.
The hacking of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ computer system on Sunday, May 7, by a group of hackers called Ghyam Sarnegouni (“From Uprising to Overthrow”), close to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (an exiled movement that’s banned in Iran), is of great interest to Vandecasteele’s family.
Hundreds of minutes of meetings, ministerial correspondence and the identities and phone numbers of the ministry’s 11,000 employees were among the information stolen by Ghyam Sarnegouni, who claimed responsibility for an attack that targeted 210 websites and online services. The ministry’s spokesman in Tehran, Nasser Kanaani, acknowledged the attack on his institution while downplaying its magnitude.
Draft exchange agreement
In the hacked documents revealed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – an offshoot of the People’s Mojahedin – and the hacker group on its Telegram page, opponents of the mullahs’ regime indicate that the Belgian authorities were considering, even before Vandecasteele’s arrest, the need to conclude an exchange agreement for Belgian and Iranian nationals. Perhaps this is because they were concerned about the fate of Ahmad Reza Djalali, a professor at the Flemish Free University in Brussels and a Swedish-Iranian doctor who was arrested in Iran in 2018 and sentenced to death for espionage. He remains in detention today.
There is no doubt Belgian officials also feared the consequences of the arrest of Assadollah Assadi, a member of the Iranian embassy in Austria and organizer of a planned attack that was to target a CNRI meeting in Villepinte in July 2018. Apprehended in Germany and then transferred to Belgium where his accomplishments were, the diplomat was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Antwerp court in February 2021. Intensive exchanges between Brussels and Tehran reportedly took place even before the judgment. This could explain why Assadi, unlike his three accomplishments, did not appeal the first instance judgment, counting on a rapid conclusion of the negotiations over his case.
While at the time, the Iranian regime protested what it considered to be a violation of the immunity that its diplomat was supposed to enjoy, documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirm that Assadi was above all a prominent member of his country’s intelligence services: The Iranian minister in charge of intelligence, and not the minister of foreign affairs, has had the upper hand on his file from the start.
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