A Belgian court on Thursday sentenced an Iranian diplomat to 20 years in jail for plotting a bomb attack on an opposition rally in the most high-profile case of Tehran-backed terrorism in Europe since the 1979 revolution.
Assadollah Assadi was convicted by a panel of three judges in Antwerp, Belgium, of planning and preparing the failed attack on a meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in June 2018.
The main target of the attack was believed to be Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the dissidents’ group.
A husband-and-wife team of bombers, Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami, who were intercepted by Belgian police on the way to the rally on the outskirts of Paris were sentenced to 15 and 18 years in jail respectively. A fourth agent was sentenced to 17 years.
The verdict was delivered amid tight security in Antwerp, where armed officers guarded the court and a police helicopter flew overhead. Visitors were subject to rigorous security checks with sniffer dogs and metal detectors.
Assadi was not in court to hear the verdicts after refusing to appear at his trial and claiming that he should have been allowed diplomatic immunity.
Assadi brought the explosives for the plot with him on a commercial flight to Austria from Iran. He then passed the bomb to a Belgian-Iranian couple at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg, two days before the attack, while on a tour of castles with his family.
The device contained 500 grammes of TATP that would have killed, the court heard.
“To detonate this explosive at the conference would have caused deaths — because of the explosion and because of the chaos an explosion would have caused,” Luc Potargent, head of the panel of three judges said.
Assadi gave the bombers instructions how to prepare, protect and transport the device. In a notebook found in his car, there were notes about attacks with other toxic materials.
“By planning this attack, they have made Iranian refugees that tried to find a safe haven in Europe feel unsafe,” the judge said. “A serious punishment is appropriate. It was an attack to their freedom of speech.”
Assadi was arrested in Germany in the wake of the failed bombing and extradited after a court ruled that his immunity did not apply outside of Austria.
The Belgian court said that Assadi, described as one of Iran’s most senior intelligence officials in Europe, did not have the right for immunity because he was not on diplomatic duty.
“He was clearly going on vacation with his family,” said the judge
“The defendant is being accused of planning a potentially deadly attack and smuggling an explosive device from Iran under diplomatic cover. We can hardly consider he was performing diplomatic acts.”
The target was the NCRI rally on June 30, 2018, attended by about 25,000 people including Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and legal adviser to former US president Donald Trump.
The botched attack was thought to have been approved at the highest levels in Tehran and the case has added new tension to relations between Iran and European governments.
It comes at a sensitive time for Western relations with Iran as new US President Joe Biden is considering whether to lift sanctions on reimposed on the country by his predecessor Mr Trump and rejoin fellow world powers in the historic 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.
Iran has said that it will not accept the validity of any conviction having described the botched attack as a “false flag” operation by NCRI to lay blame on Iran, and a “complex trap”. It considers NCRI a terrorist group.
Ms Rajavi called for the closure of Iranian embassies in Europe, the expulsion of its agents and the dismantling of its spying network.
“If these measures are not taken, it means that the Iranian regime is paying no price for its crimes,” Ms Rajavi said. “It is the regime in its entirety which is being judged in this trial — it is about state terrorism.”
Assadi — who was said to be running a Europe-wide spying network — warned authorities in March of possible retaliation by unidentified groups in the event of a guilty plea.