The Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib visits Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman, on Saturday June 10 2023 to thank the Omani authorities for having facilitated the release of Belgian NGO worker Olivier Vandecasteele, as well as three other European citizens from captivity in Iran. REUTERS/KL./FILE PHOTO

By Marine Strauss

 – Belgian foreign affairs minister Hadja Lahbib is facing calls for resignation after granting visas to delegations from Iranian and Russian cities to attend a mayors convention in Brussels last week.

Lahbib is under scrutiny for having approved visas requests for citizens from two countries under international sanctions and only three weeks after Belgian NGO worker Olivier Vandecasteele was released from an Iranian jail.

Vandecasteele, 42, was arrested on a visit to Iran in February 2022 and sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges including spying.

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He was freed last month in a prisoner swap with an Iranian diplomat who had been imprisoned in Belgium in connection with a failed bomb plot.

The “Brussels Urban Summit,” which took place last week, saw the mayors of more than 300 international cities including Brussels, Bogota, Kyiv and Tehran and also members of the European Commission and the European Parliament, gathering to discuss challenges cities are facing.

State secretary for external relations & foreign trade of the Brussels government Pascal Smet resigned on Sunday over the all-expenses paid trip.

“We found an email showing that my office has agreed to cover the living expenses of the heads of delegation from Tehran and Kazan. I am now asking the organizers, Metropolis, to bear these costs,” Smet told a press conference on Sunday.

Smet said he was not aware of the email and added a member of his cabinet had made the mistake.

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Belgo-Iranian lawmaker Darya Safai, from opposition party N-VA, said on Monday the party is asking for Lahbib’s resignation.

“We need a minister who accepts her responsibility,” Safai told Matin Premiere radio.

“The pending question is why did she agree to give these visas? Why only three weeks after the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, she accepts that terrorists come to Brussels? And why must the name of Belgium always be sullied by foreign relations which it cannot manage to control?” she said.

The foreign affairs ministry did not immediately respond to request for comments.

Belgian lawmakers will meet on June 21 to discuss the issue.

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(Reporting by Marine Strauss; Editing by Benoit Van Overstraeten)

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