TEHRAN, Iran – Iran released a dozen prominent political prisoners, including a human rights lawyer who defended opposition activists and was imprisoned for three years, activists, media and the lawyer's husband said Wednesday.
The release of lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the other prisoners comes ahead of a visit next week by Iran's new president to New York to speak at the United Nations. President Hasan Rouhani has said he hopes to usher in a new era of "increased openness" for the Islamic Republic at home and abroad.
The semi-official ISNA news agency and opposition websites reported the release of the prisoners, who had been held on security charges following Iran's disputed 2009 election. Among them is Mohsen Aminzadeh, who was deputy foreign minister during the administration of reform President Mohammad Khatami.
"This is a positive move for both inside and outside (Iran) by the moderate Rouhani," Tehran-based political analyst Soroush Farhadi said. "It is a special message suggesting Iran is ready for more flexibility."
In a statement, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcomed the releases and urged Rouhani to continue to take concrete steps toward improving the country's "urgent human rights situation" ahead of his scheduled U.N. speech on Monday.
Sotoudeh, a 49-year-old mother of two, had been convicted of security offenses and was sentenced to six years in prison after appeals. She began her sentence in September 2010. In March 2011, President Barack Obama called her imprisonment a sign of fear by Iranian authorities. In 2012, the European Union awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Sotoudeh and her family were unaware she was going to be released, her husband Reza Khandan told The Associated Press.
"We had expected her to come for a short leave but they have told her she is free," Khandan said. "We are very happy, but we will be happier if other prisoners are freed, those who have not had a single hour of leave over the past years. We all belong to the same family, the family of prisoners."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz welcomed Sotoudeh's release Wednesday.
"I commend this important positive signal by the Iranian authorities," Schulz said. "We are eagerly waiting to welcome her in Strasbourg together with her Sakharov Prize co-winner, film director Jafar Panahi."
Sotoudeh and Panahi jointly won the 50,000-euro ($66,700) Sakharov Prize. Previous winners include former South African President Nelson Mandela and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi.
Marie Harf, a deputy spokeswoman at the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. also welcomed Sotoudeh's release.
"We hope that one day all prisoners of conscience in Iran will be released," Harf said Wednesday.
Also released were Feizollah Arabsorkhi, a former deputy commerce minister, Isa Saharkhiz, a prominent Iranian journalist, and Mir Taher Mousavi, a close ally of opposition leader Mir Housein Mousavi who is currently under house arrest.
Associated Press writers Juergen Baetz in Brussels and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.