Dublin says 'doing all it can' to free French-Irish citizen held in Iran

Ireland's foreign minister said Thursday the government was doing all it can to secure the release of a French-Irish citizen held in Iran after his family urged Dublin to intensify talks due to concerns for his health following a hunger strike.

Micheal Martin told a news conference in Dublin that "we're going to do everything we possibly can" to help release Bernard Phelan, a Paris-based travel consultant aged 64.

"I think we have been very active in respect of Bernard's situation," he told reporters.

"We've sought his release on humanitarian grounds from the Iranian government and we're waiting a response from the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Iran.

"We've been engaged with the ambassador here as well."

One of seven French nationals held by Iran, Phelan was arrested in October while travelling through the country in the wake of recent anti-regime protests.

Martin's comments followed a plea from Phelan's sister Caroline Masse-Phelan for Dublin to step up its negotiations with Tehran.

"Escalate negotiations with the Iranian authorities to get Bernard out of there. His health condition is extremely bad following his hunger and thirst strike," Masse-Phelan said on RTE radio.

"His health is extremely at risk. And we still do fear for his life. So escalate, escalate, escalate," she said, explaining her brother suffers from a heart condition and chronic bone illness.

Phelan is being held in Mashhad in the northeast on a number of charges including disseminating propaganda critical of Iran's clerical leadership.

He has denied all the charges.

- 'Innocent pawn' -

"He's a person who loved Iran, and he was involved in travel and tourism, in terms of encouraging people to visit Iran from a tourism perspective," Martin said.

At the start of the year, the dual national began a hunger strike and had refused water for the past three days.

Caroline Masse-Phelan said the family had managed to pass a message to her brother through diplomatic channels on Wednesday getting him to end the hunger strike.

Previously, requests for direct communication with the family had been turned down by Iranian authorities.

She said they urged him "to stop, to eat, to drink and that it wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth losing his life in this situation".

Speaking to AFP on Wednesday Caroline Masse-Phelan said under the "dry" hunger strike her brother would survive no more than a few days.

A diplomatic source said Iranian authorities had so far refused to release Phelan on medical grounds despite repeated requests from French and Irish authorities.

Phelan is one of two dozen foreigners held in Iran, according to activists, who describe the detainees as "hostages" seized to extract concessions from the West.

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.

Caroline Masse-Phelan said her brother was "an innocent pawn in a bigger political game", explaining he had "worked in tourism and for all his life and was promoting Iran as a destination".

csp-am/phz/ach