No quid pro quo to Iran’s release of French prisoners, says minister

France’s foreign minister Catherine Colonna said her country didn’t pay anything for the release of Frenchman Benjamin Brière and Franco-Irish Bernard Phelan, who had both been prisoners in Iran.

Asked by a France 2 reporter on Tuesday whether there had been any quid pro quo to the release of the two, who were freed on 12 May from a prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Colonna said that “there was none,” adding that she cares to specify that. 

“We have pleaded a lot at different levels with the Iranian authorities given their state of health which was extremely degraded,” she added. According to Colonna, both men were sick.

Iran had kept the two detained for alleged spying, but France described the arrests as arbitrary and compared them to hostage-taking.

Brière, who’s now 37 years old, was arrested in May 2020 after flying a remote-controlled mini helicopter in northeastern Iran, near the border with Turkmenistan. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and had already served three in Iranian prisons when he was freed, despite being acquitted by an appeals court. Colonna described his long-time detention as “not acceptable.”

Phelan, who’s 64 years old, was arrested in October last year and was sentenced to six and half years in prison last month for “providing information to another country.”

People hold placards during a rally for Benjamin Briere in Paris, France, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.

“Fortunately, they came out of this ordeal,” Colonna said on Tuesday. Iranian authorities framed the release of Brière and Phelan as a “humanitarian action.”

The foreign minister added that French authorities were now working on the “unconditional” release of four French people still detained in Iran – Cécile Kohler, Jacques Paris, Louis Arnaud, and a Frenchman whose identity has not been made public. A similar statement was made by France’s President Emmanuel Macron on 12 May, when announcing the release of the two prisoners he added that authorities continued their efforts to free the remaining “compatriots” still in Iranian prisons.

Kohler and Paris were arrested on 7 May, 2022, during what their relatives described as a “tourist stay.” Arnaud, a 35-year-old consultant, was arrested on 28 September in the capital of Tehran while he was visiting the country for tourism.

The anonymity of the fourth French man is at the request of his family, Colonna said on Tuesday, adding that he was not a secret agent.

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