Iran frees Sakharov Prize winner lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh

Iran frees Sakharov Prize winner lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh

DUBAI / TEHERAN - Reuters / Agence France-Presse
Iran frees Sakharov Prize winner lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh

ranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh hugs get son Nima at her home in Tehran on Sept. 18, after being freed after three years in prison. AFP photo

Nasrin Sotoudeh, considered by human rights groups as Iran's highest profile political prisoner, was freed on Sept. 18, in another sign that hardline policies may be easing under a new president.

Other prisoners linked to the mass protests after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were also freed, opposition website Kaleme reported, raising hopes among activists for a possible reconciliation between Iran's conservative religious leadership and its pro-reform critics.

"It's not a temporary release, it's freedom," Sotoudeh's husband Reza Khandan told Reuters by telephone from Tehran. "We are all so happy from the depths of our hearts." 

Sotoudeh, 50, who defended journalists and rights activists including Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, staged two hunger strikes to protest at the conditions there and a ban on seeing her three-year-old son and daughter, 11. 

With fears that she might die, the United States was among the countries criticising Iran and demanding Sotoudeh be freed.

The prison releases come less than a week before President Hassan Rouhani addresses the U.N. General Assembly for the first time and is expected to present a less confrontational image than Ahmadinejad, under whose eight years in power Iran came under ever-tougher Western trade sanctions.

Last year, Sotoudeh won the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize for her human rights work.

'I will continue to defend rights'

After being freed, Sotoudeh told AFP she was in "good" condition after three years in prison, and that she would continue defending human rights.

"Psychologically, my condition is very good but my experience - with all the psychological pressure, the tense security atmosphere [at the prison], and not having access to phone calls among other things - was very tough," an energetic Sotoudeh told AFP by phone from her home.

Just like her husband, Sotoudeh sounded certain that this time her release was permanent.

"The officer who drove me home said I was permanently released, I don't have to return to prison," she said.

When asked if she would continue defending human rights, she said: "Definitely. I have permission to work and I will continue." The mother of two young children had been serving an 11-year prison sentence for defending political prisoners and aiding Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Iranian media reported that in addition to Sotoudeh, 13 other political prisoners rounded up for involvement in 2009 anti-government protests had been released.

Among them were ex-deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh, reformist politician Feyzollah Arabsorkhi and reformist journalist Mahsa Amirabadi.

They had been rounded up for alleged involvement in protests sparked by the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Amnesty hails release

Meanwhile, Amnesty International hailed Sotoudeh and other political prisoners' releases, urging Tehran to free all "prisoners of conscience."

"While the releases are a positive development, they must be a first step that paves the way for the release of all prisoners of conscience held solely because they peacefully exercised their rights," Amnesty said in a statement.

Amnesty said Sotoudeh's release "must mark a fundamental shift in Iran's policies on human rights and the way the authorities deal with peaceful activists and critics."

"Otherwise it risks being seen as a calculated public relations stunt ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week," it added.