Iran in the dock over foiled Paris attack

Iran in the dock over foiled Paris attack
Thousands of exiled Iranians gathered in Villepinte, north of Paris, to listen to the speech of Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. (File/AP)
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Updated 25 November 2020

Iran in the dock over foiled Paris attack

Iran in the dock over foiled Paris attack
  • Conviction of the defendants, who face up to 20 years in prison, would tarnish Iran’s image
  • The rally, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, attracted 25,000 people, including political figures

BRUSSELS: A sensitive trial with an international dimension opens in Antwerp, Belgium, on Nov. 27. Four Iranians, including Assadolah Assadi, a diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, are on trial for attempted murder, terrorism and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.

They are accused of planning, at the instigation of Iran, an bomb attack on an Iranian opposition rally in Villepinte, on the eastern outskirts of Paris on June 30, 2018.

The rally, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, attracted 25,000 people, including political figures such as Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, and Ingrid Betancourt, former candidate for the Colombian presidency.

On the day of the rally, Amir Saadouni and his wife Nasimeh Naami were arrested in Brussels. The couple, who live in Beveren, a small Flemish town, were on their way to Villepinte.

The police discovered an explosive device, a remote control and three cell phones, as well as €35,000 ($42,000) in cash in their belongings. They confessed to investigators that they were going there to carry out an attack on the rally of opponents of the Iranian regime.

The investigation revealed that the couple were acting on behalf of Assadolah Assadi, third secretary of the Iranian embassy in Vienna since 2014.

The diplomat was arrested the next day in a highway parking lot near Frankfurt by German police and handed over to Belgium.

According to the Belgian intelligence services, Assadi’s diplomatic activity only served as a cover for his work for “Department 312,” which is attached to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).

A spy rather than a diplomat, he was in charge of gathering information on Iranian opponents. He reportedly approached Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami in 2012 to dig out information for him in exchange for large sums of money.

He was also said to have approached Merhad Arefani, the fourth accused in the Antwerp trial, who was arrested in Villepinte before being extradited to Belgium.

The intelligence services’ case is that the foiled attack was not a personal initiative of the defendants, but was “conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership.”

Iran has denied any involvement, denouncing the affair as a “political machination” mounted by the Iranian opposition and accusing the Belgian and German authorities of violating diplomatic immunity in arresting Assadolah Assadi.

Aware of the ultra-sensitive nature of the case, the Belgian courts were particularly discreet throughout the investigations. This desire for discretion explains why the trial may be restricted to just two hearings, which is unprecedented in such cases.

Conviction of the defendants, who face up to 20 years in prison, would tarnish Iran’s image and may pave the way for similar cases in Denmark, Albania and Germany.


Biden’s US revives support for WHO, reversing Trump retreat

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Updated 37 min 3 sec ago

Biden’s US revives support for WHO, reversing Trump retreat

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
  • President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says the US will again fund the WHO
  • Trump's US halted funding for the UN health agency — stripping it of badly needed cash as it was battling a health crisis

GENEVA: The United States will resume funding for the World Health Organization and join its consortium aimed at sharing coronavirus vaccines fairly around the globe, President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic said Thursday, renewing support for an agency that the Trump administration had pulled back from.
Dr. Anthony Fauci’s quick commitment to the WHO — whose response to the pandemic has been criticized by many, but perhaps most vociferously by the Trump administration — marks a dramatic and vocal shift toward a more cooperative approach to fighting the pandemic.
“I am honored to announce that the United States will remain a member of the World Health Organization,” Fauci told a virtual meeting of the WHO from the United States, where it was 4:10 a.m. in Washington. It was the first public statement by a member of Biden’s administration to an international audience — and a sign of the priority that the new president has made of fighting COVID-19 both at home and with world partners.
Just hours after Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, he wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres saying the US had reversed the planned pullout from the WHO that was expected to take effect in July.
The withdrawal from the WHO was rich with symbolism — another instance of America’s go-it-alone strategy under Trump. But it also had practical ramifications: The US halted funding for the UN health agency — stripping it of cash from the country that has long been its biggest donor just as the agency was battling the health crisis that has killed more than 2 million people worldwide. The US had also pulled back staff from the organization.
Fauci said the Biden administration will resume “regular engagement” with WHO and will “fulfill its financial obligations to the organization.”
The WHO chief and others jumped in to welcome the US announcements.
“This is a good day for WHO and a good day for global health,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “The role of the United States, its role, global role is very, very crucial.”
The two men hinted at a warm relationship between them, with Fauci calling Tedros his “dear friend” and Tedros referring to Fauci as “my brother Tony.”
The White House said later Thursday that Vice President Kamala Harris had discussed many of the same themes as Fauci raised in a call with Tedros.
But she emphasized the need to beef up the global response to COVID-19, “mitigate its secondary impacts, including on women and girls,” and work to “prevent the next outbreak from becoming an epidemic or pandemic,” the White House said in a statement.
“In addition, the vice president emphasized the importance of making America safer through global cooperation,” it added, highlighting the new tone out of Washington.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the renewed commitment “great news” in an email. “The world has always been a better place when the US plays a leadership role in solving global health problems including the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio and other diseases,” he said.
Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke wrote on Facebook: “This is going to have a huge impact on the world’s ability to fight the pandemic. It is decisive that the United States is involved as a driving force and not a country that is looking for the exit when a global catastrophe rages.”
Fauci also said Biden will issue a directive Thursday that shows the United States’ intent to join the COVAX Facility, a project to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to people in need around the world — whether in rich or poor countries.
Under Trump, the US had been the highest-profile — and most deep-pocketed — holdout from the COVAX Facility, which has struggled to meet its goals of distributing millions of vaccines both because of financial and logistic difficulties.
WHO and leaders in many developing countries have repeatedly expressed concerns that poorer places could be the last to get COVID-19 vaccines, while noting that leaving vast swaths of the global population unvaccinated puts everyone at risk.
While vowing US support, Fauci also pointed to some key challenges facing WHO. He said the US was committed to “transparency, including those events surrounding the early days of the pandemic.”
One of the Trump administration’s biggest criticisms was that the WHO reacted too slowly to the outbreak in Wuhan, China, and was too accepting of and too effusive about the Chinese government’s response to it. Others have also shared those criticisms — but public health experts and many countries have argued that, while the organization needs reform, it remains vital.
Referring to a WHO-led probe looking for the origins of the coronavirus by a team that is currently in China, Fauci said: “The international investigation should be robust and clear, and we look forward to evaluating it.”
He said the US would work with WHO and partner countries to “strengthen and reform” the agency, without providing specifics.
At the White House later in the day, Fauci quipped to Jeff Zients, who is directing the national response to the coronavirus, “You can imagine the comments we were getting from the people in the WHO.”
Then he added, his voice trailing off, “They were lining up to thank ...”