An Iranian official accused of masterminding an unsuccessful bomb attack against exiled Iranian opposition members in France did not attend the opening day of his trial to face terror charges in Belgium.
Assadollah Assadi and three other suspects face the prospect of between five and 20 years in prison on charges of "attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group”.
Their trial comes two years after cross-border police thwarted the planned attack on the meeting of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq — or MEQ — opposition members in the the French town of Villepinte.
However, minutes before the trial was due to start in Antwerp, Belgium, lawyers from the plaintiffs and representatives for MEQ claimed, without offering evidence, that Mr Assadi had been ordered by Iran’s foreign minister to not attend the hearing.
The plaintiffs believe that Mr Assadi organised the plot on orders from Iran's highest authorities.
"The Iran state conspires, threatens and carries on attacks and executions," said lawyer Georges Henri Beauthier. "We have irrefutable proofs that the Iranian state gave orders from Tehran and authorised the death of thousands of people."
In June 2018, Belgian police officers following up on a tip off about a possible attack on the ‘Free Iran’ rally stopped a couple driving a Mercedes - finding 550 grams of TATP explosives and a detonator.
The state’s bomb disposal unit said the explosives had been of professional quality, and could have caused a sizeable explosion at the event, which was due to be attended by some 25,000 people.
Conservative MPs Bob Blackman, Matthew Offord, and Theresa Villiers attended the event, according to the register of interests on the UK government’s website.
They were joined by another Tory MP, Sir David Amess, and Labour’s Roger Godsiff, according to The Sun newspaper.
Regarded by investigators as the "operational commander" of the attack, Mr Assadi is suspected of having hired the couple years earlier to infiltrate the opposition group.
He is reported to be an officer in Iran’s intelligence and security ministry — according to papers from Belgian intelligence seen by news agency AP — and is though to have worked for Iran’s Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union's list of organisations regarded as terror groups.
Mr Assadi's lawyer said his client contests all the charges against him and will raise procedural issues, including the question of his diplomatic immunity.
Lawyers from the plaintiffs argue that diplomatic immunity does not equate to "impunity" and urged the court to order Mr Assadi to attend the trial.
Hearings are expected to last between two and three days and a verdict is expected be delivered by the end of next month or early next year.
Additional reporting by AP