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Belgian aid worker’s family concerned over son’s hunger strike in Iranian prison

Jail cells (Dreamstime/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The family of a Belgian aid worker says their son, who is jailed in Iran, has gone on a hunger strike to protest the “inhumane” conditions of his incarceration, which they say “amount to the equivalent of torture.”

Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, was detained by Iranian authorities in February, apparently without charge.

His family said in the statement on November 29 that their last contact with him was at the start of September and that they feared that his detention in solitary confinement, along with his hunger strike that started about two weeks ago, are causing his health to fail.

They added that he finally was in contact with representatives of the Belgian Consulate in Iran.

Vandecasteele has been at the center of a controversy in Belgium over a fiercely criticized treaty allowing prisoner exchanges with Iran.

Tehran is reportedly seeking a prisoner exchange with Brussels to take back Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was last year sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group, outside Paris in June 2018.

The Belgian opposition has alleged that the agreement with Tehran was tailor-made to permit Assadi’s release, while Iranian exiles have also mounted a fierce campaign against the deal, leading a group of 11 human rights organizations to appeal to Brussels to cancel the agreement.

Western countries have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage and then using them in prisoner swaps.

During a current wave of unrest sparked by the death of a young woman while she was detained for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly, Iranian security forces have taken some 40 foreign nationals into custody.

Iranian cities continue to be the scene of anti-government protests, with videos published on social media showing protesters taking to the streets in different areas of Tehran and chanting slogans against the country’s leaders amid an outcry that erupted in mid-September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Protesters in Tehran’s Ekbatan neighborhood chanted the slogans for the release of rapper Toomaj Salehi from custody.

Salehi is one of 21 people who face the death penalty after being charged with what a UN official told Reuters on November 29 are “vague and broadly formulated criminal offenses.”

Javaid Rehman, a UN-appointed independent expert on Iran, told Reuters in an interview that Salehi was indicted for “corruption on Earth for publication of lies on a large scale.”

Meanwhile, Ali Karimi, a former player with Bayern Munich and once the captain of Iran’s national soccer team, said in an interview that due to frequent threats from Tehran authorities, he had to leave Dubai, the city where he lives.

In an interview published by Manoto TV, a London-based Persian-language television station, the Iranian soccer star said that after his support for the protests, he was sent a message through his close relatives that a death sentence had been issued against him and could be carried out at any moment.

Iran is known to have assassinated and abducted multiple exiled opposition figures in the past, including Iranian-German dual citizen Jamshid Sharmahd and journalist Ruhollah Zam.

Karimi is one of several high-profile Iranians to support the protests.

Several Iranian celebrities have been interrogated and had their passports confiscated after showing support for the anti-government protests that have occurred daily since Amini’s death.

Voria Ghafouri, who has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment and was surprisingly left out of this year’s World Cup squad, was reportedly arrested on November 24, just days after expressing sympathy for Amini’s family and calling for an end to the violent crackdown on protesters in his and Amini’s native western Kurdistan region.

Iranian media reported that Ghafouri was released on bail on November 29.

Pressure has also been placed on an Iranian soccer legend, Ali Daei, who said he chose not to travel to Qatar for the World Cup due to the government’s crackdown and said on social media on November 28 that he had received “numerous threats against myself and my family in recent months and days.”

Several thousand people have also been arrested, including many protesters, journalists, lawyers, activists, digital-rights defenders, and others.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 23, at least 445 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 61 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.