What we know about the imprisonment in Iran of Frenchman Bernard Phelan, whose state of health worries

The Quai d’Orsay warns of the state of health of the sexagenarian, imprisoned in Iran since October, and demanded a release “without delay”. Her sister has also spoken out to say her brother is “innocent”.

His survival is “a matter of days”, says his family. Franco-Irish Bernard Phelan, 64, was arrested on October 3 in Iran and has since been imprisoned in very precarious sanitary conditions in Mashhad, the country’s second city. His arrest and imprisonment were confirmed by the French Foreign Ministry on Tuesday after an initial confirmation from Irish diplomacy last week.

The Quai d’Orsay said it was “extremely worried” about the state of health of the detainee, who began a thirst strike on Monday. The detainee’s sister, Caroline Massé-Phelan, affirms that her brother is “innocent” and urges Tehran to release him on humanitarian grounds.

Why was Bernard Phelan in Iran?

According to his sister, the 60-year-old was on a “study trip” as part of his activities as a “consultant in Iran for a tour operator” when he was arrested in early October. He “loved Iran” she says and “brought tourists there”. He had arrived in Iran on September 17 and had no particular fear according to his sister.

An undated photo of Bernard Phelan provided by his family.
An undated photo of Bernard Phelan provided by his family. © Provided by the family/AFP

Why is he imprisoned?

The precise reason for Bernard Phelan’s detention has not been publicly communicated by Iran or commented on by the Quai d’Orsay. “He was not tried” but was arrested on the pretext that he was making anti-Iranian regime propaganda, says his sister.

The situation of the Franco-Irish is reminiscent of that of several other Westerners, including six other French people who were arrested shortly after the outbreak of the protest movement in Iran in reaction to the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for having worn her veil incorrectly and died three days later. Bernard Phelan left for Iran the day after his death.

“My brother’s trip was planned for a long time,” explains Caroline Massé-Phelan.

Supporters of the arrested Westerners describe them as innocents used by the Revolutionary Guards as leverage in Iran’s relations with the West. Tehran and the major powers have long tried, unsuccessfully, to resuscitate a 2015 international accord that aims to ensure the civilian character of Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran is accused, despite its denials, of seeking to acquire atomic weapons.

“I think he is part of a group of Europeans imprisoned for political reasons (…) of which I know nothing”, “we have nothing to do with this story”, declared his sister.

“He is an innocent in the middle of I don’t know what story (…) who is sick, who just wants to go home”, she laments

Why is her situation worrying?

After starting a hunger strike on New Year’s Day to protest against his detention, Bernard Phelan has been on a thirst strike since Monday and his state of health has in fact deteriorated sharply. A diplomatic source told AFP that the 60-year-old showed “serious signs of physical and psychological exhaustion”.

“He is already not well. He has lost weight” but “he is doing this because he can’t take it anymore”, “these are the only weapons” he has, underlines Caroline Massé-Phelan.

The detainee also suffers from a heart problem and a bone pathology requiring medical treatment. Bernard Phelan’s state of health is “fragile and requires appropriate medical monitoring which is not provided in his place of detention”, deplores Anne-Claire Legendre, director of communication at the Quai d’Orsay, demanding that he “be released without delay”.

The families of the seven French detainees are growing increasingly worried as the winter weather makes conditions increasingly harsh in overcrowded, windowless cells in the freezing cold.

The ministry “multiplies, in connection with the Irish government, the steps with Iran” so that Bernard Phelan is released “without delay”.

The sexagenarian is in contact twice a day with the crisis and support unit of the Quai d’Orsay “which transmits the messages of his family”, indicated the French diplomatic source. But requests for direct communication with the family have all been denied by Iranian authorities.

The Franco-Irish only received his first French consular visit on January 9, after repeated requests, the diplomatic source also explained. Her 95-year-old father wrote to the Iranian Embassy in Ireland asking for her release.

What we know about the imprisonment in Iran of Frenchman Bernard Phelan, whose state of health worries