Prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and several political prisoners were freed on Wednesday, a week before President Hassan Rowhani's highly anticipated appearance before the UN General Assembly.
Shortly after her release, Sotoudeh told AFP by phone from home that she was in "good" physical and psychological condition after three years in prison, and pledged to continue defending human rights.
"Psychologically, my condition is very good but my experience -- with all the psychological pressure, the tense security atmosphere (in jail), and not having access to phone calls among other things -- was very tough," Sotoudeh said in an energetic tone, as her family was heard cheering.
She said that physically her condition was also "good", despite going on hunger strike nearly 11 months ago in protest at the harsh conditions of her imprisonment and pressure on her family.
Hailing from a religious middle class family, the mother of two was among the few lawyers to take on high-profile rights and political cases, including juveniles facing the death penalty, before her arrest in 2010.
Sentenced to 11 years in January 2011 and banned from practising law for 20 years for conspiring against state security, she was temporarily freed in January in the face of calls from the United Nations, the European Union and main international human rights groups.
On Wednesday, she 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 replied: "Definitely. I have permission to work and I will continue."
Sotoudeh, who won the European parliament's prestigious Sakharov rights prize, had been also sentenced for her membership in the Centre for Human Rights Defenders founded by Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has become a nemesis of the Iranian regime.
The release came days before Rowhani, who took office in August, flies to New York for a closely watched appearance at the UN General Assembly.
US President Barack Obama recently revealed that he had exchanged letters with Rowhani following his election in hopes of improving long-tense relations.
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State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf praised the release of prisoners and voiced hope that Rowhani "will continue to keep his promises to the Iranian people" to provide greater freedoms.
"We renew our call today for Iran to release all prisoners of conscience in its custody," Harf said.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said he hoped to "see further improvements in Iran's human rights record" under Rowhani.
President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz also welcomed the news, saying it was an "important positive signal" from Tehran.
Iranian media reported that in addition to Sotoudeh, around a dozen other political prisoners rounded up for involvement in 2009 anti-government protests had also been released by Wednesday night.
Among them were ex-deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh, reformist politician Feyzollah Arabsorkhi and reformist journalist Mahsa Amirabadi.
AFP could not independently confirm those reports.
They were jailed when the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked massive anti-government protests, leading to a deadly regime crackdown.
Among those arrested were hundreds of pro-reform opposition figures, including ex-officials, journalists and activists, as well as thousands of other people.
There were no reports on Wednesday about opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been incommunicado under separate house arrest since February 2011, despite calls from some officials for their fate to be clarified.
Rowhani, who won a surprise victory in the June presidential election, campaigned to enable more freedom at home, constructively engage the world, and shore up Iran's economy as it suffers under tough international sanctions.
While his agenda has not yet been made public, Rowhani's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is scheduled to meet Hague in New York to discuss rebuilding ties broken after the British embassy in Tehran was stormed in 2011.
Zarif is also to meet European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who represents world powers in a decade-long showdown over Tehran's controversial nuclear ambitions.