IRELAND, France and the EU are urging Iran to release a Tipperary-born tourism executive from prison as part of traditional leniency orders marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Bernard Phelan, 64, has been in “a hellhole” Iranian prison for seven months since his family insisted he was wrongly accused of espionage.
Mr Phelan, a dual Irish-French tour operator, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, warning his family that he was simply in “the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Concerns about his well-being have increased as he suffers from a number of medical conditions.
Ramadan ends on April 21 – and a number of prisoners are traditionally released early from prison by authorities in many Muslim countries to mark the event.
Irish, French and EU officials are now urging the Iranians to release Phelan.
Francis Fitzgerlad, MEP from Dublin, said Mr Phelan’s continued detention was “outrageous”.
“He was literally taken off the street, put in jail, without trial and under outrageous circumstances,” she said.
“He has no passport and I call on the Iranian government to release him.”
Mr Phelan has insisted he is innocent of all charges – and supporters claim he was targeted by the regime in Tehran in an attempt to silence European countries that criticized the crackdown on domestic dissent.
He now suffers from multiple health issues, including hypertensive heart disease, vision problems that his family fears could make him partially blind, as well as chronic weight loss.
An Iranian judge last month approved a draconian six-and-a-half-year prison sentence when Mr Phelan’s family called for them to go home.
His father, Vincent (97), released a special YouTube video in which he called on his son to leave Iran – and expressed fear of ever seeing him again.
Mr Phelan’s sister, Caroline Massé Phelan, pleaded with the Irish and French authorities to do more to help her brother.
Iranian authorities accused Mr Phelan, who was trained in Dublin, of “providing information to an enemy country”.
This is believed to refer to innocent tourist photos Mr. Phelan took in the country.
French authorities have now bluntly warned Iran that they will be held accountable as fears for Mr Phelan’s health mount.
The Phelan family revealed that he had to use cardboard to deflect icy gusts of wind from the open bars of his cell at the notorious Vakil Abad Prison.
Phelan had gone on a hunger strike to protest his unjust detention since last October – and now his family has revealed he fears he could lose his sight.
His sister managed to speak to her brother by telephone in February for the first time in more than four months.
Mr. Phelan’s family were shocked to learn that he was experiencing increasing vision problems in Iranian prison.
“During the phone conversation, Bernard told me about the problems with his eye. He said that he can no longer see clearly through his eye and we are very concerned, not only about his eyesight, but also about his general health,” she said.
His family fears the vision problems could be related to complications from corneal replacement surgery he apparently underwent early last year before traveling to Iran as part of his tourism business.
They fear that, if left untreated, the eye problems could make him partially blind.
“He is an innocent man caught in the middle of I don’t know what. He loves Iran. He is 64 and he is sick. All he wants is to go home,” Ms. Massé Phelan said.
Mr Phelan’s family was heartbroken three weeks ago when he was not among a group of prisoners being released early from Iranian prisons as part of an amnesty package.
They are now pleading with the French and Irish authorities to do more to help him before he develops permanent health problems.
“It’s very, very disturbing,” she said.
Mr Phelan was arrested when protests broke out across Iran last year.
He was in the country to promote tourism to Iran – and other tour operators were shocked when he was dragged away with a hood over his head by Iranian paramilitary police.
Iranian authorities have held Mr Phelan in one of the worst prisons in the country – and he was held in a death row cell where a number of prisoners have been executed in recent weeks.
Tehran has waged a brutal crackdown on dissent, executing a number of its nationals in recent weeks in the wake of massive street demonstrations.
Iran has been gripped by street protests since a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being detained by feared religious police for allegedly wearing her headscarf inappropriately.
A number of Western nationals have been detained in Iran in the aftermath of the protests.
Some analysts said this was a deliberate policy by Tehran to try and silence the countries that are the most harsh international critics.
Mr. Phelan has strongly denied that Iranian authorities have accused him of helping to incite propaganda against the Tehran government.
He was detained in the city of Mashhad on October 3.
Iranian authorities accused him of “anti-establishment propaganda” and shooting police officers.
Born in Clonmel in Co Tipperary, he has lived in France for many years and was reportedly traveling on a French passport when he was detained.
Mr Phelan does have an Irish passport – and his family believe he was detained for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The French authorities have tried to provide consular support to Mr Phelan’s family.
They last month demanded that Tehran release the tour operator – and warned France that Tehran would be held responsible for the health of its citizens in custody.
“We are extremely concerned given the extreme fragility of his health situation,” admitted Anne-Claire Legendre, official at the French Foreign Ministry.
“The denial of medical access at this time by the Iranian authorities is completely unacceptable.”