Bernard Phelan, the 64-year-old Irishman who has been imprisoned in Mashad, northeastern Iran, for nearly six months, lives in a cell with more than a dozen men, many of them hardened criminals.
Bunkbeds are the only furniture. Phelan eats standing up because his arthritis prevents him sitting on the floor. Meals consist mainly of rice. From time to time the prisoners are given hard-boiled eggs, though there are never enough for everyone. The cell contains one open, communal toilet.
These and other details were gleaned from interviews with Mr Phelan’s closest friends at a concert and poetry reading in his honour at the Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI) in Paris on Friday night.
Mr Phelan, a tour operator, was arrested last October at the height of nationwide protests over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. The young woman was accused of wearing improper hijab.
Mr Phelan was convicted, pardoned, then retried and condemned to 6½ years in prison.
“They accused him of espionage because he took a photo of two policemen on their motorcycle,” said Roland Bonello, a psychologist and close friend of Phelan.
“He loves motorcycles. He owns one. I think he was more interested in the motorcycle than the cops. And he took a photo of a mosque that was burning… A burning mosque is a strong image, like Notre Dame burning…”
Temperatures are sub-zero in Mashad in winter. Mr Phelan’s cell is unheated. The prisoners plugged the small window, which has no glass, with cardboard. They fill Coca Cola bottles with boiling water from the tea kettle in an attempt to keep warm.
Mr Phelan is not allowed to have socks, and remains barefoot or in flip-flops at all times. Family and friends send books and clothing through the French embassy in Tehran. Though was born in Co Tipperary and grew up in Stillorgan, Mr Phelan is a naturalised French citizen. The French and Irish foreign ministries co-ordinate efforts on his behalf, but because Mr Phelan travelled to Iran on his French passport, the French have taken the lead.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran and its Hizbullah proxies in Lebanon have used hostage-taking as a crude but effective weapon. When you imprison someone, you in effect take their family and friends, and to a certain extent their government, hostage with them.
There are at least six French citizens imprisoned in Iran. One of them, Benjamin Brière (36), is held in the same cell as Phelan. The younger Frenchman started a hunger strike in January and Mr Phelan has told friends how painful it is to watch his deterioration.
Though he is a tall, normally athletic man, Mr Phelan’s health is also precarious. “He has had serious heart problems,” says Mr Bonello. “His blood pressure is erratic. He has problems with the bones in his knees and has suffered from back pain since a fall in the cell. He is losing his eyesight.”
Phelan’s friend, Raoul Le Moigne, a child psychiatrist, described him as “very interested in other people and cultures, very charismatic, which is why he has friends of all ages and milieux”.
“He loves literature, sports, music and painting.”
Mr Phelan uses brief daily exercise periods to dictate messages over the telephone to a French consular officer in Tehran, who transmits them to the foreign ministry in Paris, which sends them on to Mr Phelan’s loved ones. His 97-year-old father, Vincent, has been able to speak to him on the telephone twice since last October.
“They torment him psychologically,” said Mr Bonello. “They promise he can call family, and at the last minute they tell him, ‘No. It isn’t authorised.’ Things like that, sometimes petty, sometimes humiliating. Each time he goes to see the judge or leaves his cell, he has to put on his prisoner’s uniform. They shackle his feet and handcuff him, which is pointless… He is a hostage. He has done absolutely nothing wrong.”
A message which Mr Phelan dictated over the phone earlier this year was printed on the invitation to the concert, which was attended by close to 50 people, many of them wearing Release Bernard Phelan T-shirts.
“I miss music that is about love, tenderness, nature, the sea, joy, caresses, silence, the voices of women, peace,” he said.
His friends used the music of Britten, Bartok, Chopin, Fauré, Messaien, Poulenc, Vivaldi and others to fulfil Bernard Phelan’s wish on Friday night. At 8pm in Paris (9.30pm more than 6,000km away in Mashad), the imprisoned man knew the music he loves was being played in his honour.
“Bernard lives in Paris, but his soul is Irish,” said Émilie Craig, a neighbour in the Marais district.
Poetry by William Butler Yeats was recited in French. A harpist played The Foggy Dew. When Bernard Phelan comes home, he will watch the video recording. “I feel certain he will get out,” Mr Bonello said. “But in what condition, and when?”