Belgium debates contentious prisoner swap treaty with Iran

A demonstration supporting the Swedish-Iranian doctor and researcher Ahmadreza Djalali, who is imprisoned and sentenced to death in Iran, was held in Stockholm, Sweden May 14, 2022. Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/via REUTERS/File Photo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian lawmakers on Tuesday debated a prisoner exchange treaty with Tehran that an exiled Iranian group opposes and says will release the mastermind behind a plan to bomb one of its rallies.

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne urged the foreign relations committee of Belgium's lower house to back an accord that intelligence services believed could avert an increased threat against Belgian interests.

"People's lives are at stake," the minister said, adding one threat that had materialised was the detention of a Belgian man in Iran since February.

Many lawmakers spoke about the possibility of an exchange to secure the release of the man, identified by some Belgian media as a 41-year-old aid worker, and Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali, who had taught in Belgium and has been sentenced to death in Iran.

Iran has called for the release of Assadollah Assadi, sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium in 2021 over a foiled 2018 bomb plot. His was the first trial of an Iranian official for suspected terrorism in Europe since Iran's 1979 revolution.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, whose rally near Paris had been the target, called the treaty "shameful" and said it gave Iran a green light to carry out attacks in Belgium.

"This is a treaty with the world's number one state sponsor or terrorism and it's only designed to release a convicted terrorist," Farzin Hashemi, deputy chair of the group's foreign affairs committee, told a news conference after the debate.

The Islamic Republic has dismissed all terrorism accusations, calling the Paris attack allegations a "false flag" stunt by the NCRI, which it in turn considers a terrorist group.

Van Quickenborne said the bill was not linked to individual cases.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns that it could encourage Iran or others to seize Belgians.

"Would this open the door to a sort of hostage diplomacy?" said Greens member Wouter De Vriendt.

The committee was due to vote on the bill on Tuesday, but adjourned the session until Wednesday after nearly four hours of debate. It is likely to be put before the full 150-member chamber on Thursday.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alison Williams)

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