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Iranian diplomat convicted of planning attack on opposition

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People wave flags and confetti after the trial of four persons, including an Iranian diplomate and Belgian-Iranian couple at the courthouse in Antwerp, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. An Iranian official on Thursday was convicted of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court that rejected his claim of diplomatic immunity. Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based diplomat detained in Belgium, refused to testify during his trial last year, invoking his diplomatic status. He did not attend Thursday's hearing at the Antwerp courthouse. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

ANTWERP – An Iranian official identified as an undercover agent was convicted Thursday of masterminding a thwarted bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court, which rejected his claim of diplomatic immunity.

Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based diplomat detained in Belgium, refused to testify during his trial last year, invoking his diplomatic status. He did not attend Thursday's hearing at the Antwerp courthouse.

Prosecutors had requested the maximum prison sentence of 20 years on charges of attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group. Assadi contested all the charges against him. His lawyer, Dimitri De Beco, said it's likely Assadi will decide to appeal the ruling.

Three other defendants were also found guilty and received lengthy jail sentences after the court ruled that they belonged to the same network.

During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs and representatives of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq opposition group, or MEK, claimed without offering evidence that the diplomat set up the attack on direct orders from Iran’s highest authorities. Tehran has denied having a hand in the plot.

In its ruling, the court made clear Iran was not on trial, but insisted the quartet of defendants were members of a cell operating for Iran’s intelligence services gathering information about the opposition group to identify targets and set up an attack.

Assadi’s conviction comes at a critical time and has the potential to embarrass his country as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration weighs whether to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Iran also said last month it expects Washington to lift economic sanctions that former President Donald Trump imposed on the country after pulling America out of the atomic deal in 2018.

The European Union centered its reaction on Assadi specifically and did not draw in Iran as a nation. “The acts committed by this person are completely unacceptable. That’s a fact. The other aspect I can add is that the person in question is already on the EU counter-terrorism list," said EU spokesman Peter Stano.

The Belgian government said the ruling stood on its own, separated from diplomacy and international relations.

“What matters is that today the justice system has ruled on facts of terrorism and made a clear statement about it. And it must be able to do that in complete independence. Otherwise, we no longer live in a constitutional state,” said Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne.

On June 30, 2018, Belgian police officers tipped off by intelligence services 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.

Among dozens of prominent guests at the rally that day were Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, former conservative speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Assadi was arrested a day later in Germany and transferred to Belgium. The court said since Assadi was on vacation at the time of his arrest — and not in Austria, where he was accredited — he was not entitled to immunity.

A note from Belgium’s intelligence and security agency seen by The Associated Press identified him 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 said 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.

Prosecutors said he was the “operational commander” of the attack and accused him of recruiting the couple — Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami — years before the attack, to obtain information about the opposition. Both were of Iranian heritage.

Saadouni was sentenced to 15 years in jail while Naami was handed a 18-year sentence.

According to the investigation, Assadi carried the explosives to Austria on a commercial flight from Iran and later handed the bomb over to the pair during a meeting at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg. The ruling confirmed that the explosives were made and tested in Iran.

The fourth defendant, Mehrdad Arefani, was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran is a part of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an exiled Iranian opposition group largely based in Albania and Paris.

It was formed in 1965 by college students who embraced both Marxism and Islamic governance while seeking to overthrow the ruling shah. They’ve been blamed for killing Americans in the 1970s and later assassinations and bombings, attacks in which the group now denies being involved.

They were pushed out of Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, then joined Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in battling Iran, becoming incredibly unpopular in their country. The group has sought to rehabilitate its image in recent years, paying tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to American politicians. The MEK says it renounced violence in 2001.

The organization’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, welcomed the ruling and reasserted her claims that Assadi's plot had been approved by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The time has come for the European Union to take action," she said, urging EU countries to recall their ambassadors from Tehran in light of the ruling.

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Angela Charlton in Paris, Raf Casert in Brussels and Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this report.