Who is Bernard Phelan, the Irish-French national released from jail in Iran?

Phelan, who lives in Paris with his husband, Roland Bonello, was working for an Iranian tour operator when he was detained seven months ago on charges of spying

Bernard Phelan grew up in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. His parents sent him on an exchange to Saint-Malo in Brittany when he was 12, to learn French. “That was the beginning of my love for France,” he says.

In 1986, Phelan moved to Paris to work for Tourism Ireland. “Our family were an Irish brain drain. My brother Declan, who has passed away, moved to Germany. My sister Caroline followed me to Paris and is still here.”

In 2003, Phelan met the love of his life in the Marais, Paris’s gay neighbourhood. “We had a coup de foudre,” says Roland Bonello, looking across the table at Phelan. “Love at first sight,” adds Phelan. They concluded a civil union known as a Pacs in 2006 and married in 2014, soon after same-sex marriage was legalised.

Phelan’s marriage to Bonello was a conundrum for family and friends who campaigned for his release from prison in Iran. When I met Bonello at an evening of solidarity for Phelan at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in March, we agreed that I would identify him only as a close friend. It was feared that Phelan would be ill-treated if his sexual orientation became known to Iranian authorities.


When Phelan was transferred to prison in Mashhad after several weeks in interrogation centres last October, a particularly sinister interrogator was sent from Tehran to question him.

“I called him Henri. He spoke French perfectly,” says Phelan. “He was a horrible guy. He wore white latex gloves and you could see black hairs through them. He corrected my French grammar, to intimidate me.”

Henri asked Phelan if he was married. “I said Yes.” “What is the name of your wife?” Henri asked then. “I told him my husband is called Roland Bonello.”

Wasn’t that a rash thing to do? “Sexuality is complicated in Iran,” Phelan explains. “Officially, homosexuality does not exist.” The hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told students at Columbia University in 2007 that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, even issued a fatwa allowing transgender people to undergo surgery. Yet homosexual acts, male or female, can be punished if proven. Men have been hanged for sodomy.

Henri “didn’t bat an eyelash” when told of his marriage to a man, Phelan says. “I was surprised by his reaction. Henri asked me if we had thought of adopting children. I said no, because I’m a little old for that and it hasn’t been that long since the mariage pour tous (same-sex marriage) law in France.”

Henri then noted that the LGBT lobby was very powerful in Europe. “They didn’t want to be seen to be persecuting gays,” Phelan says. “It was another arm in case things got bad.”

“I think they were afraid to add to the revolt they were already facing [over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody and discrimination against women],” Bonello says. “They didn’t want Iran to be called homophobic as well.”

Iranian interrogators had found references to the Cox Bar in the Marais, of which Phelan owns 50 per cent, in his computer. “The bar is 35 years old. It’s historic,” Phelan says. “We were the first bar to persuade Amnesty to join French Gay Pride. We did events for Ukraine, for other minorities.

“I was afraid the fact that we were talking to NGOs would upset the Iranians… I tried to keep it quiet, not because the bar is gay, but because we are militant.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor