Iran Frees Frenchman, Franco-Irish Citizen After Prison Hunger Strikes

Iran on Friday released two French citizens, including one also holding Irish nationality, as Paris urged Tehran to free other foreigners jailed by the Islamic republic.

French-Irish citizen Bernard Phelan, held since October, and Frenchman Benjamin Briere, who was first detained while traveling in Iran in May 2020, were freed from their prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad, the French foreign ministry said.

They rapidly boarded a special flight to Paris and landed at the capital’s Le Bourget airport — no longer used for commercial flights — in the evening, according to AFP TV images.

There had been grave concerns about the health of both men, both of whom had been on hunger strikes to protest their conditions.

President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter: “Free, finally. Benjamin Briere and Bernard Phelan can reunite with their loved ones. It’s a relief.”

Briere’s sister Blandine Briere, who has led the campaign for his release, told AFP: “We are avoiding a tragedy. I have no words to describe the joy we feel.”

“We cannot tell you how relieved we are,” added Phelan’s sister Caroline in a statement.

Neither man was expected to speak publicly for some time and both families requested privacy.

The pair were among some two dozen foreigners jailed in Iran who campaigners see as hostages held in a deliberate strategy by Tehran to extract concessions from the West.

‘Difficult ordeal’

Phelan, 64, a Paris-based travel consultant, was arrested in October in the city of Mashhad. In April, he was jailed for six and a half years on national security charges strongly rejected by his family.

With Iran rocked by anti-regime protests since September, Phelan was accused of taking photos of a burned mosque and police officers, and sending images to a British newspaper, the family said.

Phelan went on a dry hunger strike in January to protest his detention, refusing both food and water. But he stopped the action at the request of his family, who feared he would die.

Briere, 37, was first detained while traveling in Iran in May 2020 and later sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage.

Although acquitted by an appeals court, he remained in prison in a situation described as “incomprehensible” by his family.

Briere also went on hunger strikes to protest his conditions.

“This release had to happen before there was a catastrophe. There was a real risk to his life,” his lawyer told AFP.

‘Regain full freedom’

Iran’s foreign ministry described the release of Briere and Phelan as a “humanitarian action.”

Four more French citizens, described previously as “hostages” by the French foreign ministry, are still in prison in Iran.

Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said she had spoken earlier Friday to her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian and made clear “France’s determination to ensure that the other French citizens still detained in Iran also rapidly regain their full freedom.”

Several U.S., German, British, Swedish and other European citizens, such as Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele arrested in February 2022, also remain detained.

The holding of foreigners by Tehran has increased tensions with the West at a time when the Islamic republic is under scrutiny for its crackdown on the protest movement that erupted in September.

Activists also are alarmed by a surge in the number of executions by Iran. On Saturday, Tehran hanged Swedish-Iranian dissident Habib Chaab on terrorism charges.

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