Middle East

Facing terror charges, Iran diplomat skips trial opening day

ANTWERP, Belgium (AP) — An Iranian diplomat suspected of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France did not show up at a courthouse in Belgium on the opening day of his trial on terror charges Friday, invoking his diplomatic immunity.

More than two years after the cross-border police operation that thwarted the plot, Assadollah Assadi and three other suspects face between five years and 20 years in prison on charges of “attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.”

Minutes before the trial started in the city of Antwerp, lawyers from the plaintiffs and representatives of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq opposition group, or MEK, claimed without offering evidence that Assadi — who is in custody — was ordered by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif not to attend.

The plaintiffs believe that Assadi set up the plan on orders from Iran’s highest authorities. Iran has denied having a hand in the plot.

“The Iran state conspires, threatens and carries on attacks and executions,” said lawyer Georges Henri Beauthier. “We have irrefutable proof that the Iranian state gave orders from Tehran and authorized the death of thousands of people.”

Assadi, 48, did not cooperate with investigators and denies all charges. His lawyer, Dimitri De Beco, said his client considers “the court is not competent to judge him” due to his diplomatic status. De Beco said he will also raise procedural issues during a second hearing set for next week.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that diplomatic immunity does not equate to “impunity.”

A verdict is expected be delivered by the end of next month or early next year.

On June 30, 2018, Belgian police officers tipped off about a possible attack against the annual meeting of the MEK, stopped a couple traveling in a Mercedes car. In their luggage, they found 550 grams of the unstable TATP explosive and a detonator.

Belgium’s bomb disposal unit said the device was of professional quality. It could have caused a sizable explosion and panic in the crowd, estimated at 25,000 people, that had gathered that day in the French town of Villepinte, north of Paris.

Regarded by investigators as the “operational commander” of the attack, Assadi is suspected of recruiting the couple — Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami — to obtain information about the opposition years before the attack. Investigators believe Assadi carried the explosives to Austria then handed the bomb over to Saadouni and Naami during a meeting in Luxembourg.

A note from Belgium’s intelligence and security agency seen by The Associated Press identified Assadi as an officer of Iran’s intelligence and security ministry who operated under cover at Iran’s embassy in Vienna. Belgium’s state security officers believe he worked for the ministry’s so-called Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union’s list of organizations regarded as terrorist.

Based near Paris, the MEK, once an armed organization with a base in Iraq, is the most structured among exiled Iranian opposition group, and detested by Iranian authorities. It was removed from European Union and U.S. terrorism lists several years ago after denouncing violence and getting Western politicians to lobby on its behalf.

Belgian lawyer Sven Mary, center, arrives at the courthouse in Antwerp, Belgium, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Four people are going on trial in the Belgian city of Antwerp on Friday, accused of planning to bomb a rally of Iranian opposition supporters. The plot was thwarted by a cross-border intelligence operation that led to the arrest of a couple in Brussels. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

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