March 25, 2023

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Irish man in ill health sentenced to six years in Iran prison for ‘spying’

Bernard Phelan - HANDOUT/AFP
Bernard Phelan – HANDOUT/AFP

An Irish man in failing health has been sentenced to six and a half years in prison in Iran for spying after being detained by Tehran since October.

Bernard Phelan’s family said he was given the sentence for “providing information to an enemy country”, a charge which the 64-year-old denies.

They urged Ireland’s government not to reopen an embassy in Iran, while Mr Phelan, a dual French citizen, is being held.

Iran is holding an estimated 17 Western nationals, most of them with dual nationality, to use as levers in what has been dubbed “hostage diplomacy”.

In January, Tehran executed Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian, for spying despite British government warnings to spare his life.

Alireza Akbari - AFP
Alireza Akbari – AFP

Mr Phelan, a Paris-based travel consultant, has a heart condition and chronic bone and eyesight issues but Iran has refused to release him on humanitarian grounds.

His sister Caroline Massé-Phelan said: “Bernard is ailing now and he’s on death watch. Time is running out.

“They’re potentially going to open an Irish embassy in Iran,” she told broadcaster RTÉ.

“We would say how can we normalise any communication with Iran while they have locked up an innocent Irish citizen in one of their prisons?”

In a video calling for his release, his 97-year-old father Vincent said he feared he would not live to see his son again.

Mr Phelan and his father Vincent - AFP
Mr Phelan and his father Vincent – AFP

Mr Phelan is from Clonmel, County Tipperary, but grew up in Blackrock, County Dublin.

He has visited Iran regularly since 2017 and promoted it as a tourist destination.

He was arrested on October 3 in the city of Mashhad during the anti-government protests that saw millions take to the streets.

“He was hauled off the road, bag over his head,” Ms Massé-Phelan said, describing him as being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Bernard Phelan - AFP
Bernard Phelan – AFP

He was accused of taking photographs of police officers and a burnt mosque.

Conditions inside Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad are cramped, with 16 people sharing a cell.

The Irish foreign affairs service said it was extremely concerned by the case and was engaging with the Iranian authorities.

Mr Phelan was travelling on his French passport when he was arrested. He later went on hunger strike but has ended that protest against his incarceration.

French officials have previously said they were extremely worried about his poor health in jail.

Iran increased Belgian national Olivier Vandecasteele’s sentence for spying and other offences from 28 years to 40 years in jail and 74 lashes in January.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian, was held for six years on espionage charges before being released in March last year after the UK paid a decades-old £400 million debt.

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