Belgium warns its nationals to leave Iran amid arrests

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium is urging its nationals to leave Iran and warns they risk arbitrary arrest or an unfair trial after a detained aid worker was reportedly sentenced to 28 years in prison last week.

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

Security forces violently cracked down on the protests, killing more than 500 demonstrators and arresting more than 18,000, according to human rights activists in Iran, a group 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 string of celebrity arrests including footballers, actors and influencers.

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

It said the Belgian embassy in Tehran is “very limited” in the assistance it can provide in case of arrest. People with two passports cannot receive consular visits, as Iran does not recognize dual citizenship.

“Belgian nationals who are currently in Iran despite this warning are requested to exercise extreme vigilance and take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety,” the statement issued on Sunday said.

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

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

His family said charges against Vandecasteele are still unclear, he has been denied access to a lawyer of his choice and he is suffering from serious health problems.

Iran has detained a number of dual-national Iranians over the years on charges of spying or otherwise undermining national security. Critics accuse Iran of using such detainees as bargaining chips to gain concessions from the international community, something the Iranian 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 charged with meeting with protesting teachers and taking part in an anti-government rally.

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