A French-Irish citizen held in Iran since October 2022 and now on a dry hunger strike to protest his detention will survive no more than a few days unless he is freed, his sister said on Wednesday.
Bernard Phelan, a Paris-based travel consultant and one of seven French nationals held by Iran, was arrested in October while travelling and is being held in Mashhad in northeastern Iran.
The 64-year-old’s family has said he started a dry hunger strike on Monday, refusing water, in addition to the food hunger strike he had been on since the start of the year.
His sister Caroline Masse-Phelan told AFP on Wednesday that her brother was an innocent man detained for reasons “beyond our comprehension”.
She said his health condition meant he had to be released urgently.
“It’s a matter of days,” she said. “He’s an innocent man caught in the middle of I don’t know what. He loves Iran, he is 64, sick, and wants to go home.”
“He is showing serious signs of physical and psychological exhaustion,” said a French diplomatic source, adding he was in a “critical state”.
– Prisoner’s ‘only weapons’ –
The Iranian authorities have so far refused to release Phelan on medical grounds despite repeated requests from the French and Irish authorities, the source said.
“I think he is part of a group of Europeans imprisoned for political reasons… of which I know nothing,” his sister added.
“We have nothing to do with this story.”
Phelan is one of two dozen foreigners currently held in Iran, according to activists, who describe the detainees as “hostages” seized to extract concessions from the West.
Phelan was travelling through Mashhad during the ongoing protests against Iran’s clerical regime when he was arrested.
He is being held in Vakilabad prison in Mashhad. His sister said he suffers from a heart condition that requires medical treatment.
The hunger and thirst strikes are putting his life in danger but “he is doing this because he can’t take it anymore,” she s aid.
“These are the only weapons,” she added, saying that it was on his urging that she had moved to make the case public.
– ‘Demand basic rights’ –
Fellow French national Benjamin Briere, who was sentenced last year to eight years in prison on spying charges, is being held in the same jail.
“Bernard Phelan is in contact twice a day with the crisis unit of the French foreign ministry, which passes on the messages from his family,” the source said.
But requests for direct communication with the family have been turned down by the Iranian authorities.
Phelan received his first French consular visit only on January 9, after repeated requests, the diplomatic source added.
Activists fear that the current downgrading of contact between Western governments and Iran over the protest crackdown has lessened the prospect of the foreign detainees being released soon.
US citizen Siamak Namazi, who is of Iranian descent and was arrested in October 2015, this week started a seven-day hunger strike as he implored President Joe Biden to put greater priority on his case.
“Today the whole world is witnessing how atrociously this regime can respond to those who dare demand their basic rights,” Namazi said.