Bernard Phelan’s ordeal began outside the Imam Reza mosque in Mashhad, the holiest shrine in Iran, last October 3rd. Phelan had just visited the vast complex, which he compares to the Vatican, when he and the Iranian tour operator he worked with, who goes by the name Mike, were approached by plainclothes policemen.
“I called them Laurel and Hardy. The short one pulled his ID card from his pocket and said, ‘Come with me,’ just like in the movies,” Phelan laughs now. “Mike blanched because he could read Farsi. They were from Ettela’at, the Iranian ministry of intelligence.”
Phelan and Mike were taken to a prayer room where they were questioned for more than two hours, photographed and fingerprinted. Phelan has not seen his friend since. He knows that Mike was freed but has been cautioned against making contact.
Phelan was put into a Peugeot sedan, handcuffed and blindfolded. “I said to myself, ‘this is getting serious’.” During the first night in an interrogation centre “I heard someone being beaten in another cell with a truncheon. The guy was screaming, screaming, screaming. I heard it hitting his body. I didn’t sleep all night.”
Phelan was moved to solitary confinement in another interrogation centre. He suffers from an erratic heartbeat, high blood pressure and is in danger of having a stroke. He knew that ill health offered his best hope of early release.
“The last thing the Iranians want is a hostage returning home in a wheelchair, on a stretcher or, worse still, in a coffin,” he says. “I ended up in a basement room in Mashhad hospital, handcuffed to the bed, with two guards 24/7 and a drip in my arm. I don’t know what they put in the drip. They kept me there three nights. From there I went to Mashhad prison.”
Phelan had arrived in Iran in mid-September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody following her arrest for allegedly not wearing the hijab correctly. Her death sparked nationwide protests.
Phelan’s French husband, Roland Bonello, begged him to come home. Internet coverage was blocked. Bonello received his last message from Phelan on October 2nd. “He was supposed to fly home on the 10th,” Bonello says. “When the flight landed without him, I knew something was terribly wrong.”
Phelan was charged with endangering state security in the third week of October. “I had seen a single demonstration in Tabriz... There were cops on motorcycles attacking people, tear gas. The police were firing live bullets. On our way back to the hotel we crossed a square with burning cars, trucks and ambulances.”
Phelan was finally allowed to telephone Bonello at the beginning of November. “We both burst out laughing, just hearing each other,” Bonello says. They would speak only five or six times during the seven months of Phelan’s captivity.
Phelan was able to dictate letters to Bonello via the French embassy in Tehran. He communicated with his 97-year-old father, Vincent, via Justin Ryan, Ireland’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran.
Phelan was taken to the courthouse in Mashhad several times, manacled and shackled, in a striped prison uniform. Though there was a lift in the building, the 64-year-old was forced to walk up three flights in chains.
On Phelan’s first trip to the courthouse, he refused to sign documents in Farsi which he could not understand. “You will die in prison,” the judge muttered.
Phelan was sentenced to 3½ years in prison. Another judge asked for clemency on the grounds of ill health. “They gave me 6½ years instead. I was afraid I would die in prison.”
Last winter was the coldest in Mashhad in a decade. Prisoners were not allowed shoes, only flip-flops without socks. To insulate his body from the cold floor while he waited in the courthouse basement, Phelan sat on one flip-flop and placed his feet on the other.
In the courthouse basement, Phelan encountered a prisoner from the Sunni jihadist group Isis, who threatened to kill him, drawing his finger across his throat in a threatening gesture.
Phelan’s cell contained foreigners and several Iranian political prisoners. “They called us the satans,” he says. Foreigners included Frenchman Benjamin Brière, aged 38, who was arrested in May 2020. There were also drug traffickers from Bahrain, Pakistan and Turkey.
“There were criminals with low IQs and political prisoners reading Animal Farm,” says Phelan. “There were fights between prisoners, usually started by the Turkish drug smuggler. An Iranian political prisoner who we called the dog was the grass, because in every cell there was an official informer.”
Phelan became friends with a political prisoner called Taj Muhammad Khormali, from the city of Gonbad. “Taj had already been seven years in prison and was condemned to death. His sentence was overturned two years ago, but he only learned that recently. The biggest stress for political prisoners was to let their families know they were alive.”
Taj wanted his name to be publicised. “He’s a very religious man, a Sunni. Shortly before I arrived, six of them were taken downstairs, Taj and five others. Three came back up, including Taj. The other three were executed.”
Prisoners slated for execution spent their last night in Phelan’s cellblock. “There was a little trapdoor they put the food through. It was left open for air, and I could see their feet. I could hear the person crying. They may have been murderers or drug traffickers, but I’m against capital punishment.”
Bonello’s 12-year-old nephew Abel sent Phelan a painting via the French embassy in Tehran. “It says courage, peace. It shows flowers, and people coming out of hell and making a human chain around the planet. My cellmates said, ‘That is beautiful. What does it mean, courage?’ They covered it in plastic to preserve it and hung it near the television set and said, ‘You must leave it when you go.’”
There was no happiness in prison, but there were funny moments. Phelan watched Mary Poppins on the television set in his cell. “Remember the beginning when Mary Poppins comes down from the sky? Cut. Allah is the only person who comes down from the sky. Dancing with Dick Van Dyke on the rooftop? Cut. Women are not allowed to sing or dance.”
Phelan was taken to Mashhad University for a medical examination. “By this time, the guards knew me, and they carried my handcuffs and shackles.” Waiting in the parking lot for the ambulance, a guard pointed to a nearby Mulberry tree. “I start helping them, jumping up and down in my prison uniform, him with his black prison guard uniform and a machine gun on his back. The two of us jumping up and down and catching fruit off the tree. It was totally surreal, like a Beckett play.”
On May 11th, Phelan and Brière were called to the office of the security director at the prison. Brière had been told once before that he was about to be released, only to be returned to his cell.
“The director said, ‘You have to sign a letter saying you will not take legal action against the state of Iran or against the prison’. We both said ‘no’. He said, ‘Go back to your cell’. Twenty minutes later they came back and said, ‘Ben and Bernard, get your stuff’.”
Unknown to Phelan and Brière, the French ambassador, Nicolas Roche, an embassy team, and their lawyer, Shadi Halimi, had waited outside the prison since 7.30 that morning. The prisoners exited through a side door. “I thought, ‘Where are we going? I don’t trust the Iranians. I don’t trust them with a bargepole.’”
An official from the Iranian foreign ministry met the prisoners in an unmarked apartment building, where the French ambassador caught up with them. Brière thought he heard someone say he would be rearrested.
Phelan and Brière spent their last night in Iran in a private hospital in Mashhad. “Everyone was afraid they would show up that night and drag us out of hospital,” says Phelan. “The ambassador got the director of the hospital to sleep in the room next door to us. It was very tense.”
On the morning of Friday May 12th, Roland Bonello was notified by the foreign ministry’s crisis cell that the aircraft was on the tarmac in Mashhad. The prisoners would be free once they cleared Iranian airspace. “It was the longest half-hour of my life,” Bonello says.
“I love planes,” Phelan says boyishly. “It was a jet special Dassault Falcon 500 hospital plane. A superb jet. We are barely in the door of the plane when it starts moving. I remember the famous Ryanair flight that was hijacked to Belarus. That was in my mind, that the Iranians were capable of making the plane turn back. I thought, ‘I’m not out of this until I’m out of Iranian airspace’. The pilot said 28 minutes. They were afraid somebody would drive in front of the plane to stop it. 28 minutes. The pilot said, ‘We’ve done it’. There was an explosion of joy. Cheers. Everybody had tears. Three pilots, the doctor, the nurse, the lady from the foreign ministry.”
Hours later at Le Bourget airport “was the most fantastic moment, when the door opened and I saw Roland and my sister,” Phelan says.
“There are no words,” Bonello adds. “An unforgettable moment. I never felt such relief. It was over. I don’t know if we cried or laughed. The impossible had happened. For seven months, I believed in it, and yet I couldn’t believe it.”