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Irishman Bernard Phelan speaks of being ‘pawn’ in Iranian prison

The 64-year-old was held for more than seven months before being freed earlier in May

Supporters of Bernard Phelan and his family protested outside the Iranian embassy in Dublin while he was held in prison. Photographs: Laura Hutton

Bernard Phelan, the Irishman who was imprisoned in Mashhad, Iran, from October 3rd, 2022 until May 12th, has given the only interview since his liberation to The Irish Times, in the Paris apartment he shares with his husband Roland Bonello.

Mr Phelan, age 64, is a professional tour operator, former employee of Tourism Ireland and co-owner of a gay bar in Paris’s Marais district. He also holds French citizenship and was convicted of endangering Iranian state security while researching with an Iranian colleague a new tour route from Turkey across central Asia to the Chinese border. He witnessed rioting in the wake of the death in police custody of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini and had images of demonstrations and burning vehicles on his smartphone.

Mr Phelan is still under care at a French military hospital. Doctors allow him to come and go as he adjusts to normal life. He suffered acute anxiety when he first left the military hospital on May 22nd and cannot yet venture out unaccompanied.

Mr Phelan believes he was a pawn in the Islamic Republic’s decades-old practice of hostage diplomacy. “I knew the Iranians were not going to beat me, not going to hang me, even though I was gay,” he said. “I hadn’t committed any of the usual crimes. I hadn’t killed anyone. I didn’t have sex with anyone. Nothing. I had right on my side. I was just a poor guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”


On his first night in an interrogation centre, Mr Phelan heard a man being beaten with a truncheon in a nearby cell. Prisoners who were to be hanged the following morning spent their last night in his cellblock at Mashhad prison.

An Iranian judge told Mr Phelan he would die in prison. Iranian authorities toyed with prisoners’ nerves by promising phone calls, even liberation, then rescinding those promises. Mr Phelan was told his sentence would be commuted because of ill health. It was instead increased from 3½ years to 6½ years. In the basement holding pen for prisoners at the courthouse in Mashhad, an imprisoned Isis jihadist threatened him with decapitation.

In another example of Iran’s hostage diplomacy, Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker, was exchanged by Tehran for Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium for his part in a failed bomb plot, on May 26th.

“I am thrilled for his family,” Mr Phelan said of Vandecasteele’s release. He received a message from the Belgian’s family. “We cannot believe this day has finally happened. We are now part of a ‘club’ we wished we wouldn’t be part of. We think of all the other families still living in anguish.” Four French citizens remain imprisoned in Iran.

The Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said he negotiated the liberation of Phelan and fellow prisoner Benjamin Brière with his French counterpart, Catherine Colonna, in Beijing over two hours. “There were agreements between us and the result of some of the accords between us was the liberation of two French citizens a few days ago,” he told Le Figaro on May 19th.

Contrary to tradition, President Emmanuel Macron did not greet Messers Phelan and Brière at Le Bourget airport. Nor has he telephoned them, a fact that has disappointed Mr Phelan.

Mr Phelan says he does not know what agreement was made on his behalf. “I’d really like to know. I don’t know if it was an exchange. I don’t know exactly what the role of France was, and what was the role of Ireland.”