‘I’ve enjoyed having a pint of Guinness, seeing family and friends, and Irish humour’

Dubliner held for seven months in prison says he and his family have received no practical support from Irish, French and EU authorities

Bernard Phelan (64), who was released from an Iranian prison in May after being held for seven months, says he is angry he and his family have received “zero” practical support from the Irish, French and EU authorities with putting their lives back together.

He is now back in Ireland with his husband Roland Bonello, and staying with his father Vincent (97) in south Dublin.

“I’ve enjoyed having a pint of Guinness, seeing family and friends and Irish humour. Things feel easy here,” he says, sitting in Irish summer sunshine on Monday afternoon.

But he has been struggling, he says, with “complicated” post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


And while he will be “eternally” thankful for the support he and his family received during his imprisonment and for the diplomatic efforts that achieved his release, he is “angry” at the lack of practical support in getting his life back on track.

“I have no income. I cannot work [due to PTSD]. The Iranians took my computer, my phone, everything. I had to buy an old, reconditioned computer, an old reconditioned iPhone. All gone. Insurance won’t cover me, so I am arguing with them at the moment.

“I have had to borrow money from family. There is a fund in France that supports victims of terrorism but not victims of hostage taking. So I need to employ a lawyer to argue about that. But who will pay for the lawyer?”

Mr Phelan, who has both French and Irish citizenship, was arrested in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran last October.

A travel consultant and regular visitor to Iran, he was in the country on his French passport working on a project to devise a Silk Road train tour from Istanbul to the Far East. He was charged with endangering Iranian state security and sentenced to 6½ years.

Campaigning by his family and diplomatic efforts by the EU and the French and Irish governments led to his release from on May 12th. Also released, from the same prison, was Frenchman Benjamin Brière.

“I’d found out since, the reason we were released was because the Belgians released an Iranian prisoner and the Iranians released four Europeans, including me and Benjamin.”

He spent a night in a private hospital in Mashhad before being flown to Paris. He spent another week in hospital. Following discharge he and Mr Bonello spent a week in the south, near Perpignan, where he savoured swimming in the sea, countryside silence and being able to eat paté and bacon.

His sleep remains disturbed and the trauma can overwhelm him without warning.

“Last night I slept okay. But I have been having horrible dreams. I had one recently where I am on the ground and someone is kicking me and I am trying to grab their legs… I wake up and Roland is saying, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay’.”

At a recent dinner party in France, another guest was wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt.

“I just went white [with shock]. On religious holidays, the prison workers and the guards, many would wear black long-sleeved shirts,” he says.

“Recently we passed a prison in the car and a cold shudder went down my back.”

In France he sees a psychiatrist, he has been prescribed tablets to quell his nightmares and he has phone access to psychiatric support whenever he needs it. But he is still waiting for a French identity card and driving licence.

He says Irish authorities ensured he was issued with a new Irish passport but he feels he has been left “to start life from scratch”.

Asked about the expenses he faces, in addition to replacing equipment and identity papers, he says: “There is the mortgage on the apartment, the community fees, electricity.”

He describes the exchange of prisoner releases as a “game” between States, in his case between the EU and Iran, in which he and his family have been “pawns”.

“It is taking a toll on family. When you take a person hostage you take a whole family. We were pawns for Europe. We were pawns. We are totally innocent, We didn’t do anything wrong.

“I am angry and I am getting more and more angry the more it goes on, the more we are not getting support. I can’t understand why we are not getting support. What’s really hard is when you come back there is nothing organised for us.”

He is meeting Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin on Tuesday.

“I will be thanking him for all the support. He sent me letters in prison… I never got any letter like that from the French government. The Irish are very good at that kind of human support.

“I’ll also be saying, ‘Help us when we’re out of this mess, please.’

“There is not enough help after. It’s sad. I hope it never happens to an Irish person again, but it could.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement it had provided extensive consular assistance on the case, including advice on support organisations.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times