BRUSSELS: The family of a Belgian aid worker being held in Iran, Olivier Vandecasteele, pleaded Monday for their government to do “everything necessary” to secure his release.
“Even though he’s innocent, he has been rotting away for nearly five months in total solitary confinement,” his sister Nathalie Vandercasteele said in a video released to media.
“Today Olivier needs your support... It is unthinkable for our family that our democratic Belgium isn’t doing everything necessary to get innocent prisoners out of countries like Iran,” she said.
Vandecasteele, 41, was arrested in Iran at the end of February and is being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on charges of “espionage.”
His family, some Belgian MPs and rights groups such as Amnesty International underlined Iran’s tactic of taking foreigners hostage to pressure Western countries to make concessions.
In this case, they say Iran is seeking to force Belgium to release one of its diplomats who was last year found guilty of masterminding a 2018 foiled bomb attack outside Paris.
The diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, 50, is serving a 20-year sentence in a Belgian prison for attempted “terrorist” murder and “participating in the activities of a terrorist group.”
Belgium’s government is currently urging parliament to pass a controversial prisoner-swap treaty with Iran which could pave the way for Vandercasteele and Assadi to each return to his country.
In the family video, Vandercasteele’s mother Annie barely held back tears as she implored authorities to get her son freed.
“Since he finished his studies, he has been far from us to help others. Now, help us to get him out of there and bring him home so we can hug him close,” she said.
Nathalie Vandercasteele said her brother had received two consular visits that revealed he suffered major weight-loss and a foot infection.
“He has spent two months without even a mattress, in a cell lit up around the clock, and being subjected to daily psychological pressure from interrogators,” she said.
The convicted Iranian diplomat Assadi was attached to Iran’s embassy in Austria where investigators said he served as a regime agent under diplomatic cover.
After European intelligence services uncovered the Iranian plot to set off a bomb at a rally of Iranian dissidents outside Paris, Assadi — who supplied the explosives — was arrested in Germany, where his claim for diplomatic immunity was denied.
He was extradited to Belgium for his trial, and chose not to challenge his sentence on appeal.
Tehran has furiously rejected the charges levelled at the diplomat.
Family of Belgian held in Iran pleas for his release
Family of Belgian held in Iran pleas for his release
- Vandecasteele, 41, was arrested in Iran at the end of February and is being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison
- His family, some Belgian MPs and rights groups underlined Iran’s tactic of taking foreigners hostage to pressure Western countries to make concessions
BRUSSELS: The family of a Belgian aid worker being held in Iran, Olivier Vandecasteele, pleaded Monday for their government to do “everything necessary” to secure his release.
Iran’s supreme leader issues pardon for ‘tens of thousands’ of prisoners — IRNA
DUBAI: Iran’s supreme leader has pardoned “tens of thousands” of prisoners including some arrested in recent anti-government protests, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday, after a deadly state crackdown helped quell the nationwide unrest.
However, the pardon approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came with conditions, according to details announced in state media reports, which said the measure would not apply to any of the numerous dual nationals held in Iran.
State news agency IRNA said those accused of “corruption on earth” — a capital charge brought against some protesters, four of whom have been executed — would also not be pardoned.
Neither would it apply to those charged with “spying for foreign agencies” or those “affiliated with groups hostile to the Islamic Republic,” state media reported.
Iran was swept by protests following the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman in the custody of the country’s morality police last September. Iranians from all walks of life took part, marking one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.
According to the HRANA activist news agency, about 20,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, which the authorities accused Iran’s foreign enemies of fomenting.
Rights groups say over 500 have been killed in the crackdown, including 70 minors. At least four people have been hanged, according to the Iranian judiciary.
In a letter to Khamenei requesting the pardon, judiciary head Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei said: “During recent events, a number of people, especially young people, committed wrong actions and crimes as a result of the indoctrination and propaganda of the enemy.
Protests have slowed considerably since the hangings began.
“Since the foreign enemies and anti-revolutionary currents’ plans have been foiled, many of these youth now regret their actions,” Ejei wrote.
Khamenei approved the pardons in honor of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
It would not apply to those “facing charges of spying for foreign agencies, having direct contact with foreign agents, committing intentional murder and injury, (and) committing destruction and arson of state property.”
“Naturally, those who do not express regret for their activities and give a written commitment for not repeating those activities, will not be pardoned,” deputy judiciary chief Sadeq Rahimi said, state media reported.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights group said this week that at least 100 detained protesters faced possible death sentences.
Amnesty International has criticized Iranian authorities for what it called “sham trials designed to intimidate those participating in the popular uprising that has rocked Iran.”
Bus crash kills at least 8, injures dozens in western Turkiye
ISTANBUL: A passenger bus crashed off a road and overturned in western Turkiye Sunday, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens.
The governor’s office of Afyonkarahisar province said the bus was traveling from the southeastern Diyarbakir province to the Aegean city of Bodrum.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted that 42 people were injured, with three in critical condition.
Videos from the scene showed ambulances lined up and a crane holding the bus up.
An injured passenger with a broken arm told official Anadolu news agency that he was half asleep when the bus “flew.” He said people were stuck underneath the bus.
The bus was operated by a company called Star Has Diyarbakir.
How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations
- Judiciary and politicians have accused Tarek Bitar of insubordination for resuming his inquiry after a 13-month hiatus
- For survivors and the families of those killed in the explosion, Judge Bitar’s fresh effort offers a glimmer of hope
DUBAI: When a massive explosion tore through the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, killing more than 215 people, Lebanese officials promised a swift investigation that would bring the culprits to justice within days.
Since then, the inquiry has repeatedly stalled, with its lead investigator Tarek Bitar accused of insubordination for resuming his probe into the blast and charging several top officials.
The blast, which devastated the port and surrounding districts, injuring more than 6,500 and displacing some 300,000, occurred when a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, improperly stored in a warehouse since 2014, somehow caught fire.
Survivors, relatives of the victims and rights groups have blamed the disaster on a political class widely viewed as corrupt and inept. To date, no official has been held accountable.
“The stuttering investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion had already demonstrated that the judiciary was a plaything in the hands of powerful figures, who could gleefully toss spanners into the legal works to hamstring procedures indefinitely,” broadcaster and political commentator Baria Alamuddin said in a recent op-ed for Arab News.
Bitar’s investigation was initially halted in December 2021 due to a ruling from the Court of Cassation. Three former cabinet ministers had filed court orders against him, while groups opposed to the inquiry, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah, accused him of bias.
Bitar was already the second judge to head the investigation following Judge Fadi Sawan’s removal. In December 2020, Sawan had charged former prime minister Hassan Diab — who had resigned in the explosion’s aftermath — and three former ministers with negligence.
However, Sawan was removed from the case after mounting political pressure, and the probe was suspended.
His successor, Bitar, also summoned Diab for questioning and asked parliament, without success, to lift the immunity of lawmakers who had served as ministers. The interior ministry also refused to execute arrest warrants, further undermining Bitar’s quest for accountability.
In October 2021, protests calling for Bitar’s removal were organized by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, a Shiite political party headed by Nabih Berri, in the civil war-scarred Beirut neighborhood of Tayouneh.
The protests quickly turned deadly when unidentified snipers opened fire on the crowd, killing seven civilians and injuring dozens in echoes of the 1975-90 civil war period. The gunmen were suspected members of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party.
Given these tensions and hurdles, it took many by surprise when Bitar resumed his investigation on Jan. 23 after a 13-month hiatus, charging eight new suspects, including high-level security officials and Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat.
Bitar also charged former prime minister Diab, parliamentarian Ghazi Zaiter, former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, former army commander Jean Kahwaji, and Major General Tony Saliba.
Oweidat responded by issuing a travel ban against Bitar, accusing him of “sedition” and of “acting without a mandate,” charging him with “rebelling against the judiciary.” He also issued an order releasing 17 suspects held in pretrial detention.
“Lebanon’s judiciary has become an object of ridicule, as judges leveled retaliatory charges against each other and arbitrarily ordered the releases of detainees,” said columnist Alamuddin.
“By filing charges against senior officials, Bitar is not an out-of-control judge. Rather he is signaling that the entire complicit, corrupt leadership deserves to be brought to account.”
The executive-judiciary squabble is a further test of Lebanon’s crumbling institutions. Wracked by financial crisis and political paralysis, its currency in free fall and thousands of professionals and young people fleeing the country, expectations are low.
Michael Young, editor of Diwan, a blog of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, and author of “Ghosts of Martyrs Square,” is convinced that Bitar will not be permitted to do his work properly.
“We have to understand that there are two steps in this process,” he told Arab News. “If Bitar invites someone, it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible for him to force the people he wants to investigate to sit for their interviews.
“The police will not do anything about it because the interior ministry in its turn will not implement anything. The judicial police is controlled by the public prosecutor Oueidat, and he’s made it clear that he will not order the implementation of any decisions.
“The ability of Bitar to do his job properly is going to be, in my opinion, impossible. His investigation is technically blocked.”
Why Bitar chose to resume his inquiry now remains unclear. But for survivors and the families of those killed in the blast, his return offers a glimmer of hope.
“It was time for Judge Bitar to resume his work. The truth has to come out at some point and I think what Judge Ghassan Oueidat did by defying Judge Bitar is strengthening his will to uncover the truth,” Tatiana Hasrouty, who lost her father Ghassan Hasrouty in the blast, told Arab News.
“I believe in Judge Bitar, not as a person, but rather as the judge who is in charge of investigating this crime and is working on uncovering the truth and upholding the rule of law. He is challenging the culture of impunity we, the Lebanese, have inherited by summoning politicians and high officials.”
Bitar, who was first appointed as lead investigator in February 2021, was seen by many Lebanese as an impartial and honest judge.
The 49-year-old Christian, who hails from the country’s north, rarely appears in public or speaks to the press, and is known to have a clean reputation and no political affiliations, a rarity in such a deeply sectarian country.
“Bitar is disconcerting for the corrupt ruling classes because he doesn’t follow their rules,” Alamuddin said in her Arab News op-ed. “He declines invitations to social occasions to avoid perceptions of influence, and doesn’t accept calls from those seeking favors.”
In a recent sermon, influential Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al-Rahi voiced his support for Bitar, urging him to “continue his work,” despite the “unacceptable” judicial and political pushback.
“The meetings of the judicial bodies are witnessing a lack of quorum with judges and public prosecutors defying the Higher Judicial Council and its head and refraining from attending the meetings,” he said.
“We will not allow the port crime to go without punishment, no matter how much time passes and how many rulers change.”
Al-Rahi, who is patriarch of the largest Christian community in the country, also called on Bitar to seek the help and assistance of any international authority that might aid him in uncovering the truth.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on the UN Human Rights Council to “urgently pass a resolution to create an impartial fact-finding mission” into the port explosion.
“The Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the domestic investigation into the explosion,” they said in a joint statement.
In Lebanon’s fraught political climate, the chances of obtaining justice for the port blast’s survivors and the families of those killed appear low.
“We understood from the beginning that the political class does not want the investigation to go through to the extent that they are even willing — as we saw in the Tayouneh incident over a year ago — to risk sectarian conflict to do so,” Diwan editor Young told Arab News.
“They will not implement the rule of law. It is missing anyway in Lebanon today. They do not care about the consequences of having no rule of law.”
However, Hasrouty, who has used social media to express sorrow and anger over the loss of her father, says that regardless of what Lebanese politicians and officials do, she will not give up hope.
“The truth scares the ruling elite but this is why we will pursue it till the end,” she said. “They are scared of the power that the families and public now hold.”
UN urges end to ‘illogical escalation’ between Israel, Palestine
- Saturday’s violent storming of West Bank camp reflects ‘extremist mentality’ of Israeli govt, sources say
RAMALLAH: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged an end to the “illogical escalation” between Israel and Palestine.
Volker Turk warned that recent measures taken by Israel would “lead to more violence and bloodshed.”
In a statement distributed in Geneva, Turk said: “I am afraid that the recent measures taken by the government of Israel only serve to fuel more violations and abuses, especially the decision to facilitate obtaining permits to carry weapons.”
He warned that the matter “accompanied by hateful rhetoric, will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.”
Israel denounced Turk’s statement, accusing him, in a statement issued by its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, of bias and of “only condemning the state of Israel.”
The high commissioner added: “Instead of doubling down on the failed methods of violence and coercion that have single-handedly failed in the past, I urge all concerned to break out of the illogical logic of escalation that only ended with dead bodies, loss of life and sheer despair.
“Collective punishment measures, including forced evictions and house demolitions, are expressly prohibited under international humanitarian law and are incompatible with provisions of international human rights law.”
The high commissioner called for urgent measures to de-escalate tensions, including ensuring that international standards were maintained in investigating deaths and serious injuries.
Turk said: “Impunity has spread, which signals that abuses are permissible.”
His warning came as Mustafa Al-Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative Party, criticized the bias of the US in failing to pressure the Israeli government into ending attacks on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He made the remarks to Arab News after Palestinian medical sources said that at least 13 Palestinians were injured during clashes with the Israeli military in the West Bank on Saturday.
Israeli troops stormed the Aqbat Jabr refugee camp south of Jericho on Saturday morning.
The action led to clashes, resulting in the injury of three citizens by live rounds and other rubber-coated metal bullets.
Israeli forces had demolished part of the walls of a besieged house in the camp and used loudspeakers to request the surrender of those inside.
Palestinian medical sources said that three of the injured in the camp clashes were transferred to Ramallah hospitals in critical condition.
According to media sources and residents in the camp, three family members were arrested, including a father and son. The Israeli army also demolished a house in the camp.
Israeli sources said that troops ended the military activity in Aqabat Jabr camp and left four hours after the raid began. A search for two people who allegedly carried out an armed attack at Almog junction a week earlier did not result in arrests.
Israeli armed forces claimed that troops had raided Aqabat Jabr refugee camp and questioned several people suspected of involvement in the attack.
An army statement said that clashes took place with Palestinian gunmen during the military operation, and that there were no casualties on the Israeli side.
It added that 18 people were interrogated in the field, and six were transferred to Shin Bet for investigation.
Al-Barghouti told Arab News that the violent storming of the camp reflected the “extremist mentality” of the Israeli government, which has imposed a policy of collective punishment on Palestinians.
He described the military action — which resulted in the wounding of 13 Palestinians — as unjustified.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said that the Israeli military impeded the entry of medical and health personnel into Jericho.
Israeli armed forces have limited the exit of Palestinians in Jericho city’s eastern side during the last seven days.
It deployed tightened checkpoints at all main road entrances into the area.
Israeli authorities closed all secondary entries with earthen mounds, searching for two gunmen who opened fire toward on a restaurant at Almog on Jan. 28. No injuries were reported from the incident. Several Palestinians were arrested and later released after questioning.
Authorities adopted a “collective punishment policy” on the city by obstructing movement, searching cars and checking identities, sources said.
Citizens waited in vehicles for several hours in front of checkpoints at all entrances to the city.
The army’s actions disrupted daily life for the city’s 30,000 residents.
Dozens of citizens and workers endured waits of up to four hours at Israeli military checkpoints, while others were prevented from leaving the city entirely.
Jericho houses a terminal that serves as the only exit point for 3 million Palestinians to travel from the West Bank to countries around the world.
The closure of the city over the past week has significantly impeded the movement of citizens traveling and returning from abroad.
A doctor in the emergency department of a major Palestinian hospital in Ramallah told Arab News that the Israeli army was “deliberately shooting at the upper limbs” of targets, increasing the chances of fatal injury and death.
An ambulance officer from Jericho told Arab News that the three people left in critical condition from the camp raid were moved to Ramallah hospitals due to a lack of medical equipment in nearby hospitals.
They were transported more than 40 km, passing through several Israeli military checkpoints.
Palestinian factions have condemned the storming of Aqabat Jabr as a crime, calling for a confrontation with Israel.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said: “The occupation’s aggression against the Palestinian camps in the occupied West Bank, in addition to the escalation of daily arrest campaigns, will not weaken the continuous resistance until the occupation is defeated and our national goals are achieved.
“The escalation of resistance operations in all forms and various means categorically confirms that a new phase is taking shape in the West Bank and will pursue settlers and turn their colonies into prisons for settlers.”
Tariq Ezz El-Din, media spokesman for the Islamic Jihad Movement, said that the “ very dangerous” Israeli escalation needed to be met by “resistance activities.”
The Palestine Center for Prisoners Studies warned that Israeli authorities had stepped up arrest campaigns against Palestinians since the beginning of the year.
The center recorded 540 arrest cases, including 92 children and 10 women, in January.
It also referred to the Israeli army’s escalation of raids on towns and cities in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The center said that Jerusalem saw the largest share of arrests, with 270.
US senators link Turkiye F-16 sale with NATO bid
- ‘No guarantee’ of $20bn deal even if Ankara approves Swedish, Finnish request, analyst says
ANKARA: A bipartisan group of 29 US senators has told President Joe Biden that Congress cannot “green light” the $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkiye until Ankara ratifies a request by Sweden and Finland to join NATO.
The move comes amid a diplomatic standoff between Turkiye and Sweden over what the former claims is Swedish support for terror groups and sympathizers.
Both Sweden and Finland announced their NATO bid last year following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
However, Ankara has set preconditions in exchange for Turkish ratification of the membership applications, asking both Nordic countries to toughen their stance against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deport certain individuals, and review their regulatory framework for arms exports.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused both countries of being “guesthouses for terror organizations.”
After a far-right Danish politician recently burned a copy of the Qur’an near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, Turkiye suspended trilateral talks with Sweden and Finland, and postponed a meeting between Turkish and Swedish defense ministers in Ankara.
Although Ankara hinted at the possibility it would approve Finnish NATO accession before Sweden’s, Helsinki rejected the offer, saying that the security of both countries is dependent on each other.
In their letter to Biden, the US senators said that the two Nordic countries were “making full and good faith efforts to meet the conditions for NATO membership that Turkiye asked.”
The senators said that they could not promise any automatic sale of F-16s if Ankara agreed to the Finnish and Swedish request, but warned they “won’t even ponder this sale” in the absence of ratification.
“Failure to ratify the protocols or present a timeline for ratification threatens the alliance’s unity at a key moment in history, as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” the letter said.
For the first time, members of Congress are insisting on linking the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkiye with the ratification of the NATO accession bids by the two Nordic countries.
In January, CNN quoted Congressional sources saying that the Biden administration is preparing to ask lawmakers to approve the F-16s sale.
If approved, it will be one of the largest US arms sales in recent years.
Turkiye has been waiting for the sale of 40 F-16 fighters and almost 80 modernization kits for its existing fleet since October 2021.
Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Washington and said that the Nordic NATO accession should not be tied with the F-16 sale.
Rich Outzen, senior fellow at Atlantic Council, sees little chance of some US senators, such as Robert Menendez, the Democrat chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Van Hollen, changing their position on the F-16s even if Ankara green lights the Swedish request while Erdogan remains in office.
“They have a winning domestic political issue with a range of constituencies that dislike Turkiye, including the Greek lobby, Armenian lobby, and Syrian Kurdish YPG-sympathetic activists. With such rewards, there is little incentive to cede ground,” he told Arab News.
New Jersey, Menendez’s home state, has a large Greek-American and Armenian-American community.
In a message posted on Twitter in December, Menendez said he that would not “approve F-16s for Turkiye until Erdogan halts his abuses across the region,” referring to longstanding tensions between Turkiye and Greece over airspace, and the militarization of islands in the Aegean.
Arms sales to foreign countries are subject to congressional approval. But Congress alone cannot block foreign arms sales.
However, experts say that Ankara’s ratification of the NATO accession of Sweden and Finland would facilitate the sale process in Congress.
According to Outzen, “transactional politics” on defense deals can work when done privately and reciprocally, but the F-16 deal has become a public issue with conflicting demands.
“It makes near-term resolution almost impossible,” he said.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank EDAM, said that the senators’ letter is not surprising since NATO enlargement is a priority for the alliance and the US.
He added that “it is not at all guaranteed” that the F-16 sale will be approved, even if Ankara ratifies the Finnish and Swedish request.
Ulgen believes the White House may have to rely on the presidential prerogative to override Congressional opposition.
“But (Biden) will be much less willing to use this political prerogative, unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who did not have a long political experience with the Congress,” he said.
Turkiye was expelled by the US from its fifth-generation F-35 joint strike fighter program in 2019 after its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
Ankara has requested the F-16 jets instead of reimbursement for the undelivered F-35 fighters, and has said that it will consider alternatives, including from Russia, if the F-16s are not delivered.