TEHRAN -- Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and at least 10 other religious and political opposition figures were released from prison Wednesday with no explanation for the reprieve offered by the new government of President Hassan Rouhani.
Sotoudeh had been separated from her two young children since drawing an 11-year sentence, later reduced to six years, for allegedly acting against national security and failing to wear an Islamic headscarf.
She drew the wrath of the former government for defending women accused of violating Iran's strict morality laws and advocating for juveniles on death row.
"I do not know on what basis they have released me," a stunned Sotoudeh told the Los Angeles Times just an hour after being driven to her Tehran home. She speculated that it might be because she had served half of her reduced sentence, or that it was a sign of hoped-for relaxation of restrictions on social and religious expression in Iran.
"All of the political prisoners arrested after the 2009 election were given heavy sentences," Sotoudeh said of the activists who took part in massive demonstrations against then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following his disputed reelection. "We hope the verdicts of all political prisoners will be reversed."
At the time of her January 2011 sentencing, British Ambassador Simon Gass wrote an article for the embassy's website saying that Sotoudeh was being punished for "doing her job courageously and highlighting injustices that the Iranian regime would prefer stayed hidden."
Sotoudeh, 49, was awarded the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for her defense of the 2009 activists, and President Obama appealed for her release in an address in March 2011 on the occasion of the Persian New Year.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcomed the releases and urged the Rouhani government to take further steps to correct the "urgent human rights situation" ahead of his trip to New York next week to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
Since Rouhani's Aug. 3 inauguration, the new leadership has been sending signals of willingness to resolve Iran's decade-old dispute with the West over the nature of its nuclear programs. Proponents of social and political reform in Iran have said they hope high-level Iranian and U.S. officials can meet on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering to kick-start suspended negotiations over Iran's enrichment of uranium, which Washington and its allies suspect is being done in preparation for nuclear weapons manufacture.
Human rights activists reported at least 10 other imprisoned opponents of the former government were also released. Among them were Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister under moderate President Mohammad Khatami, and Mir Taher Mousavi, a reformist parliamentarian arrested in August 2012 upon return from a trip to Turkey.
Also released were two female converts to Christianity, Maryam Jalili and Mitra Rahmati, whose 2-1/2-year sentences for proselytizing were due to finish in about a month, Sotoudeh's husband, Reza Khandan, wrote on his Facebook page [link mostly in Farsi]. Khandan implied that the women had to be forcibly removed from the prison, although he didn't say why they wanted to remain in detention.
According to political prisoner advocates, others released were: Mahsa Amrabadi, Farah Vazehan, Jila Makvandi, Kefayat Malek Mohammadi, Feizollah Arabsorkhi and Mahboubeh Karami.
Former political prisoner Nader Karimi Juni proclaimed the releases "a good sign" that might herald impending freedom for the two most prominent opponents of Ahmadinejad. Former 2009 presidential contenders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the huge protests that followed the disputed election results, have been under house arrest since February 2011, when they sought to stage rallies in support of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement then sweeping Tunisia and Egypt.