An Irish man in poor health has spent almost three months in an Iranian prison on charges of inciting propaganda against the regime.
Bernard Phelan (64) from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, denies all the charges against him. His family believe he has been detained as part of a political dispute between the French and Iranian governments relating to anti-government protests in the country.
The Irish man, who works for an Iranian tour operator, lives in France and was travelling on a French passport at the time.
Mr Phelan is one of seven French citizens currently being detained by the Iranian regime which has been rocked by widespread anti-government protests since September.
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Tehran has accused France of attempting to stir up the protests while the French government has said its nationals are being held as state hostages.
Mr Phelan is currently being held in a cell containing 16 prisoners with no glass in the windows, meaning temperatures drop as low as minus 5 degrees at night.
His sister, Caroline Massé-Phelan, told The Irish Times he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. She said he usually travels on his Irish passport but it was quicker to get a visa on this occasion using his French passport.
The family are extremely concerned for Mr Phelan’s health, which has deteriorated significantly since his detention. He has a heart condition, and they say he has been refused access to warm clothes and hot-water bottles.
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While in prison he was briefly admitted to hospital and put on an IV drip. He has only been allowed two phone calls to relatives in 84 days and has been denied access to his lawyer and consular officials, his family say. He has said he would rather die than remain in the prison.
Irish and French diplomats have been working behind the scenes to secure Mr Phelan’s release but with no success to date. Since his arrest, which has not been announced by either government, several additional charges have been laid by the prison’s judicial authorities.
Mr Phelan was travelling through the city of Mashhad on October 3rd as part of a research trip when he was arrested for allegedly taking photographs of police officers and a mosque which had been burned.
He was held in solitary confinement for two weeks before being transferred to Vakilabad Prison, a facility notorious for carrying out secret mass executions.
After a month in custody he was charged with engaging in propaganda against the Iranian regime and with sending photographs to the Guardian newspaper. A third set of charges were later lodged, accusing Mr Phelan of stealing two pieces of 900-year-old pottery from a historic village he had visited.
One of the people in Mr Phelan’s cell is Benjamin Brière, a French travel blogger jailed for eight years last January for allegedly spying in Iran.
Mr Phelan’s family said three prisoners out of the 50 on his block have been executed during his time there.
“It’s a political issue,” Mr Phelan’s sister said. “On the Irish side, there is no reason for him to be held because the Iranians have a fairly good relationship with Ireland. He should be released.”
Mr Phelan’s 97-year-old father, Vincent, has written to Iran’s ambassador to Ireland, Dr Masoud Eslami, pleading for his son to be freed. The ambassador asked the senior Mr Phelan to be patient and wait for judicial proceedings to take their course.
“Please be assured that authorities on both sides are in contact and working on solving this problem,” Dr Eslami wrote.
It is understood Irish officials have met with the ambassador and reminded him Mr Phelan is an Irish citizen.
A graduate of UCD, Mr Phelan grew up in Blackrock, Co Dublin, and worked for Fáilte Ireland before moving into the private sector. In 2018, after visiting Iran as a tourist with his family, he became an adviser for Adventure Iran, which offers bespoke tours of the country.
“Bernard was supposed to be with me for my 97th birthday in November and also with me for Christmas. I fear that I will never see him again,” Vincent Phelan said on Sunday.
A Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said the department “is aware of the case and has been providing consular assistance, in close co-ordination with France, since the outset.
“The case has also been raised directly with the Iranian authorities. As with all consular matters, the department does not comment on the details of any specific case.”
The French and Iranian embassies in Dublin did not respond to requests for comment.