By Charlotte Van Campenhout
BRUSSELS/DUBAI June 3 (Reuters) – Three Europeans returned home on Saturday a day after being released by Iran in a prisoner swap, and Tehran said there was no reason for Europeans to be arrested if they were not “exploited” by foreign security services.
The three men – two with dual Austrian-Iranian nationality and one Dane – were released on Friday by Iran in return for Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadi as part of a swap in which Iran freed Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele last week, a Belgian government spokesperson said.
Assadi was convicted in Belgium in 2021 in connection with a foiled bomb plot in France and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Iran said the charges against him were fabricated.
After a stop in Oman and medical tests, the three Europeans were flown to Melsbroek military airport in Belgium, which had helped secure their release.
They arrived around 2:45 a.m. (0045 GMT) and were greeted by Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, Belgium’s Belga news agency reported.
Danish citizen Thomas Kjems flew on to Copenhagen, landing at around 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) on Saturday.
“It’s been up and down. I haven’t really believed that this was real, but it has happened – I’m in Denmark and logic is back,” he told reporters.
“There has been no physical torture or anything,” he said about his time spent in an Iranian prison. “I’ve been given my food and drink etcetera, but when your freedom is taken away from you, that’s what you think about,” he added.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg tweeted photos of the two Austrians arriving in Vienna.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian tweeted on Saturday that he had told Lahbib that he hoped the prisoners’ release would “open a new page” in Iran‘s relations with Belgium and Europe.
“If some European citizens are not exploited by foreign security services, there is no reason to detain them,” Amirabdollahian said.
Many Western countries have advised their nationals not to travel to Iran, citing issues including the risk of arbitrary arrests.
Austria’s Foreign Ministry said its citizens, Massud Mosaheb and Kamran Ghaderi, had been released after 1,586 and 2,709 days respectively.
In a statement on Friday, the Belgian government said the two dual nationals were “wrongfully arrested in … January 2016 and January 2019”, while the Dane was arrested in Iran in November 2022 in connection with women’s rights demonstrations.
Mosaheb is the co-chairman of the Iranian-Austrian Friendship Society and had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage, while Ghaderi is a businessman who was also sentenced to 10 years for espionage.
On Friday, Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen declined to give more information about the Danish citizen but said in a statement that he was “both happy and relieved that a Danish citizen is now on the way home to their family after having been jailed in Iran“.
Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran‘s top human rights official, said the three men were released on humanitarian grounds, Iranian state media reported.
Oman also helped in getting the prisoners freed. The Gulf Arab country has good relations with both Iran and Western countries and has acted before as a mediator.
Belgian government officials said that officially there were still 22 Europeans in Iranian prisons, but that no more Europeans would be exchanged for Assadi.
They also said that Belgium was continuing to work for the release of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian national who guest-lectured at the university of Brussels and who was arrested in 2016 while on an academic visit to Iran.
Iran has arrested dozens of foreigners and dual nationals in recent years, mostly on espionage and security-related accusations. Rights groups have criticised the arrests as a tactic to win concessions from abroad by inventing charges, an accusation Tehran denies.
(Reporting by Louise Rasmussen and Tom Little in Copenhagen, Dubai newsroom, Charlotte Van Campenhout, Bart Biesemans, Andrew Gray in Brussels and Francois Murphy in Vienna Editing by Hugh Lawson, Mark Potter and Frances Kerry)