Four European citizens returned home recently, after being released from detention in Iran. The news has opened a debate in Brussels on whether the European Union has the appropriate measures in place to counter hostage diplomacy.
Among those released was Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who spent 15 months imprisoned on espionage charges. His release was secured through a controversial prisoner swap that saw the repatriation of Asadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism by an Antwerp court in 2021.
Assadi had been found guilty in connection with a foiled plot to bomb a rally of Iranian dissidents outside Paris in 2018, which would have resulted in one of the deadliest terror attacks in recent European history, had it not been thwarted by security services.
The case marked the first time an Iranian official faced terrorism charges in the EU since the Iranian revolution of 1979. It is widely believed that Vandecasteele was released in a bid to secure Assadi’s freedom.
“[Vandecasteele's] arrest took place amid the Iranian authorities’ well documented pattern of arbitrarily detaining dual and foreign nationals and using them as leverage,” Nassim Papayianni, senior campaigner on Iran at Amnesty International, tells The Parliament.
Her organisation, she says, “has repeatedly called on states whose nationals are detained in Iran to examine whether that deprivation of liberty amounts to an act of hostage-taking and, if so, [to] take all appropriate measures to ensure accountability”.
Hostage-taking is a crime under international law, as stipulated in the United Nations’ Geneva Conventions of 1977, meaning Belgian authorities could have pursued legal action. Iranian authorities subjected Vandecasteele to torture and other ill treatment, says Papayianni, as well as “forcibly disappearing him” – meaning his location was unknown, even to his family, his lawyer and to Belgian authorities.
Enforced disappearance also violates international law, as a result of which “universal jurisdiction applies”, Papayianni explains, even if Vandecasteele wasn’t disappeared on Belgian soil.
“So, authorities in Belgium can investigate the crime,” she says, and issue international arrest warrants for those reasonably suspected of committing the crimes of hostage-taking and enforced disappearance once they have sufficient evidence.
The exact number of European nationals detained in Iran is difficult to pinpoint. The Belgian government says at least 22 prisoners remain, while France estimates that number is closer to 30.
The release of Vandecasteele and others has led some EU lawmakers to ask whether it’s time to put new measures in place that would allow the bloc to react more decisively when faced with cases of hostage-taking. At its June plenary session, the European Parliament debated a strategy to counter hostage diplomacy at the initiative of Dutch MEP Samira Rafaela and Belgian MEP Hilde Vautmans.
Following the debate, Rafaela tells The Parliament the bloc needs to put in place a “co-ordinated strategy and a special taskforce through which all Member States can respond effectively” to hostage-taking. “Let me be very clear, I am extremely happy Olivier Vandecasteele is not imprisoned any more,” she says, “but what we see in practice now is that consulates and embassies do not have enough power to respond on their own.”
Rafaela points to a lack of understanding of hostage diplomacy stopping lawmakers from taking the appropriate steps to fight back, explaining that recent awareness of the issue should lead to decisive action. “When you find out that this is a structural issue, that goes beyond borders, then you need to realise it might be wise if we organise our leverage and operate as a bloc, against these regimes,” she says.
In a speech delivered on his behalf at the June plenary session, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell described the recent release of European nationals previously held in Iran as “very positive news”, but as having “happened in the context of a growing number of illegitimate detentions involving European Union citizens in Iran”. The EU urges Iran to release all prisoners held under arbitrary detention, he added.
The exact consequences of the Belgian government’s release of Assadi, a convicted terrorist, are as yet unclear. Critics of the prisoner swap deal say it paves the way for a policy of appeasement that will embolden Iran to continue using European nationals as leverage. In a statement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the France-based dissident group whose rally Assadi attempted to bomb, called his release “a shameful ransom to terrorism and hostage-taking”.
Shahin Gobadi, a NCRI spokesperson, says the Iranian regime has “gone out of its way to get Assadi out” in order to give a sense of security to other national intelligence actors. Assadi’s release “sends a message to Tehran that they can get away with murder on a massive scale”, he tells The Parliament. “That’s obviously a very, very dangerous message.” For its part, Iran has maintained Assadi’s innocence and welcomed his release.
“It’s sinister,” Gobadi says of the “pain and agony” Vandecasteele’s family was put through. “Our heart goes out to them. We know what it feels like to lose your loved ones to this regime.”