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Belgium Foreign Minister in turmoil over Iran, Russian delegates’ invitations

June 19, 2023 at 4:29 pm

Foreign Minister of Belgium Hadja Lahbib speaks to the press during a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers at the EU Council headquarter in Brussels, Belgium on March 20, 2023 [Dursun Aydemir – Anadolu Agency]

Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister, Hadja Lahbib, is facing calls for resignation after granting visas to delegations from Iranian and Russian cities to attend a mayors’ convention in Brussels last week, Reuters reports.

Lahbib is under scrutiny for having approved visa requests for citizens from two countries under international sanctions and, only three weeks after Belgian NGO worker, Olivier Vandecasteele,

42, was arrested on a visit to Iran in February 2022 and sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges, including spying.

He was freed last month in a prisoner swap with an Iranian diplomat who had been imprisoned in Belgium in connection with a failed bomb plot.

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The “Brussels Urban Summit”, which took place last week, saw the mayors of more than 300 international cities including Brussels, Bogota, Kyiv and Tehran and also members of the European Commission and the European Parliament, gathering to discuss challenges cities are facing.

State Secretary for external relations & foreign trade of the Brussels government, Pascal Smet, resigned on Sunday over the all-expenses paid trip.

“We found an email showing that my office has agreed to cover the living expenses of the heads of delegation from Tehran and Kazan. I am now asking the organisers, Metropolis, to bear these costs,” Smet told a press conference on Sunday.

Smet said he was not aware of the email and added a member of his cabinet had made the mistake.

Belgo-Iranian lawmaker, Darya Safai, from opposition party N-VA, said on Monday the party is asking for Lahbib’s resignation.

“We need a minister who accepts her responsibility,” Safai told Matin Premiere radio.

“The pending question is why did she agree to give these visas? Why only three weeks after the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, she accepts that terrorists come to Brussels? And why must the name of Belgium always be sullied by foreign relations which it cannot manage to control?” she said.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry did not immediately respond to request for comments.

Belgian lawmakers will meet on 21 June to discuss the issue.

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