Belgian verdict in Iranian diplomat’s terror case set for January

Assadollah Assadi, a 48-year-old Iranian diplomat formerly based in Vienna, faces 20 years in prison if convicted.
Friday 04/12/2020
Lawyers of National Council of Resistance of  answer journalists’ questions as they arrive at Antwerp courthouse. AFP
Lawyers of National Council of Resistance of answer journalists’ questions as they arrive at Antwerp courthouse. (AFP)

BRUSSELS–-A Belgian court will deliver its verdict on January 22 in the trial of an Iranian diplomat accused of plotting to bomb an exiled opposition group’s rally in Paris.

Assadollah Assadi, a 48-year-old diplomat formerly based in Vienna, faces 20 years in prison if convicted of plotting to target a rally in Villepinte, outside the French capital, on June 30, 2018.

The Iranian bomb was meant to explode in the event held by an exiled Iranian opposition group the the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), formerly known as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK. It could have caused carnage.

Assadi denies any involvement in the plot, which was foiled by security services, and has refused to appear at Antwerp Criminal Court, where he is on trial with three alleged accomplices.

On Thursday, the second and last day of the hearing, the three maintained their innocence.

Lawyers for Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni — a Belgian-Iranian couple arrested in possession of a bomb in their car on their way to France — claimed the explosive was not powerful enough to kill.

The lawyer for the third alleged accomplice, Mehrdad Arefani, described by the prosecution as a relative of Assadi, has refuted his involvement and also pleaded for his acquittal.

Prosecutors are seeking an 18-year jail term for the couple and 15 for Arefani.

Naami and Saadouni were arrested in Brussels the same day while, separately, German police on July 1 arrested Assadi, who allegedly handed the couple the explosives at a June meeting in Luxembourg.

Through his lawyer Dimitri de Beco, Assadi again protested that he should not have been deprived of his diplomatic immunity.

The verdict will be delivered on January 22.

 Shedding light 

The case has caused tensions between Iran and several European countries and shone a light on Tehran’s international terrorism activities.

In October 2018, France accused Iran’s ministry of intelligence of being behind the alleged attack. Tehran has strongly denied the charges.

According to legal documents from the two-year investigation obtained by The Associated Press, Belgium’s intelligence and security agency (VSSE) says the diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, operated on orders of Iran’s authorities and brought the explosives to Europe himself.

In a note to Belgium’s federal prosecutor, the agency argued that “the planned attack was conceived in the name of Iran and at its instigation.”

Activists of the National Council of Resistance of Iran shout slogans outside the European Council headquarters during a EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP)
Activists of the National Council of Resistance of Iran shout slogans outside the European Council headquarters during a EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP)

According to Belgian security sources, Assadi, 48, is an officer of Iran’s intelligence and security ministry who operated under cover at Iran’s embassy in Vienna. Belgium’s state security officers believe he worked for the ministry’s so-called Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union’s list of organisations regarded as terrorist.

Assadi was identified by the NCRI as “a senior official of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the station chief in Austria.”

“Working on the cover of the third consul, he handed over a powerful TATP explosive to Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami in Luxembourg on June 28, 2018, to bomb the gathering in Villepinte,” it added in a statement Wednesday where it named other alleged accomplices.

Upon his arrest, investigators also found a red notebook in Assadi’s car with instructions on how to use the bomb. The analysis of the suspects’ text messages and emails revealed they used code language to communicate, with “PlayStation 4” the alleged name for the explosive device.

France has accused Iranian intelligence of being behind the plot.

“This is the first time a diplomat in Europe has been put on trial for direct involvement in terrorism,” pointed out an NCRI statement.

The NCRI, once an armed organisation with a base in Iraq, is the most structured among exiled Iranian opposition groups, and is the target of hostile acts by Iranian authorities. It was removed from EU and US terrorism lists several years ago after denouncing violence and getting western politicians to lobby on its behalf. The NCRI has supported US President Donald Trump’s hard line on Iran and backed US sanctions on the country.