Belgium warns its nationals to leave Iran amid arrests

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium is urging its nationals to leave Iran, warning that they face the risk of arbitrary arrest or unfair trial, after a detained aid worker was reportedly sentenced to 28 years in prison there last week.

Iran has been rocked by protests since the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after being detained by the morality police. The protests have since morphed into one of the most serious challenges to the theocracy installed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Security forces have violently cracked down on the protests, killing more than 500 protesters and arresting over 18,000, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been closely monitoring the unrest. More than 60 security forces have been killed, according to the group.

Over the weekend, one of the country’s most renowned actresses was arrested on charges of spreading falsehoods about the protests, the latest in a series of celebrity arrests that have included footballers, actors and influencers.

The Belgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday that “in the event of arrest or detention, respect for fundamental rights and the safety of individuals are not guaranteed.”

It said that the Belgian Embassy in Tehran “is very limited” in the help it can provide in case of arrest. People holding two passports cannot receive consular visits as Iran does not recognize dual nationality.

“Belgian nationals who, despite this warning, are currently in Iran, are invited to be extremely vigilant and to take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety,” said the statement, issued on Sunday.

The ministry noted that “recently, a Belgian national and several other Westerners were arbitrarily arrested and are currently imprisoned in Iran.”

The family of 41-year-old Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who has been detained in an Iranian prison for months and has been on hunger strike, said last week that a court had sentenced him to 28 years in prison.

His family said that the charges Vandecasteele was tried on are still unclear, that he was deprived of access to a lawyer of his choice, and that he is suffering from serious health problems.

Iran has detained a number of Iranians with dual citizenship over the years, accusing them of spying or otherwise undermining national security. Critics accuse Iran of using such detainees as bargaining chips to secure concessions from the international community, something Iran’s government denies.

A number of Europeans have been detained in Iran in recent months, including a Swedish tourist and a Polish scientist. Two French citizens arrested in June are accused of meeting with protesting teachers and taking part in an anti-government rally.

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