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Belgian court sentences Iranian diplomat to 20 years for bomb plot against exiled opposition group

Protestors waved flags outside the Antwerp Criminal court ahead of the verdict in the trial of Assadollah Assadi, – DIRK WAEM/AFP

An Iranian diplomat has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for plotting to bomb an Iranian exile opposition meeting in France that was attended by five British MPs.

Assadolah Assadi, an Austria-based diplomat, and three co-defendents were found guilty of conspiring to attack a 2018 rally of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) by a court in Antwerp, Belgium.

Three accomplices, dual Iranian-Belgians, were given jail terms of between 15 and 18 years and stripped of their Belgian citizenship.

Assadi, now 49, is the first Iranian official to be prosecuted in the European Union for terrorism.

The verdict will focus attention on Iran’s overseas operations as Tehran seeks to persuade Joe Biden’s US administration to ease sanctions and return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Labour’s Roger Godsiff and Conservative MPs Bob Blackman, Matthew Offord, Sir David Amess and Theresa Villiers, attended the event in Villepinte near Paris, where US President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, gave the keynote speech.

Mr Blackman, who was one of 25 civil parties to the case, said he was “delighted” by the verdict and called on Western governments should consider severing diplomatic ties with Iran.

“Assadi’s conviction can now provide Western officials an opportunity for a much-needed change in their own government’s policies regarding the Islamic Republic. For too long, those policies have tended toward conciliatory gestures aimed at promoting an illusory ‘moderate’ faction within the Iranian theocratic establishment,” he said.

Prosecutors said Assadi, who was the third counsellor at Iran’s Austrian embassy, was directed by Iran’s intelligence ministry to carry out the attack.

He flew half a kilogram of explosives and a detonator from Tehran to Vienna on a commercial flight, then drove to Belgium to hand them over to Nassimeh Naami, 36, and Amir Saadouni, 40.

The explosives were found in the couple’s car when they were arrested in Brussels in a joint operation involving Belgian, French and German security services.

Assadi was arrested in Germany, where police said his diplomatic immunity did not apply.

They were charged with another co-conspirator Mehrdad Arefani, 57.

The defendants denied planning to kill anyone at the rally, which was attended by an estimated 25,000 people, including a delegation of 35 Britons, according to the NCRI.

Tehran considers it a terrorist organisation and has accused it of setting up the bomb plot itself as a “false flag” operation.

The NCRI is the political wing of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, otherwise known as the MEK, which supports the overthrow of the Iranian government.

The group carried out a series of attacks against the government in the 1980s and sided with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during its decade-long war with Iran.

It was blacklisted as a terrorist group in Europe and the United States until 2009 and 2012, after it renounced violence and following intensive lobbying effort.

It says it is committed to democratic change but critics have described it as a cult with little support inside Iran.

The 2015 nuclear deal promised to improve relations between Iran and the West but European countries have subsequently accused Tehran of several attacks against opponents abroad.

These included two killers in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017 and a failed assassination in Denmark, all of which Tehran denied involvement in.

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