Iran's most prominent dissident, journalist Akbar Ganji, has been released from prison, after serving a six-year sentence for publishing articles that angered the authorities.
Prison authorities returned Akbar Ganji to his home north of Tehran late Friday night.
His release came as a surprise to his wife and friends, many of whom gathered at the journalist's home Saturday to celebrate his release. Although visibly more frail, Ganji appeared in good spirits.
Ganji's release was not expected until March 30. A statement from the Iranian judiciary says he was freed for the Persian New Year holiday, which begins Tuesday and runs through April third.
His lawyer, Yusef Molai, told VOA's Persian service that it was unclear whether he would be taken back into custody for a few days.
Lawyer Molai added that Ganji has lost a lot of weight and has some health issues, and would seek medical treatment.
Ganji was imprisoned in 2001, after publishing a series of articles alleging that top Iranian officials were linked to the murders of political dissidents in the late 1990s. He spent much of his prison term in solitary confinement, and was on a hunger strike last year for several months.
Reporters Without Borders, which followed his case closely and issued appeals for his freedom, said Ganji's release is a positive thing for the freedom of press in Iran, but expressed concern for other political prisoners in the Islamic Republic.
"We hope that the other prisoners that are in Iranian prisons will be released very soon," said Reporters Without Borders Middle East and North Africa desk officer Lynn Tehini.
Tehini said that Reporters Without Borders spoke with Ganji after his release, and he wanted to thank everyone in the international community and human rights groups who supported him while he was in prison.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department, which has repeatedly called for Ganji's release, issued a statement urging Iranian authorities to free the journalist, saying his sentence was supposed to end on March 17. The State Department also called on Tehran's government to end what it called its "abuse of the fundamental freedoms of Iran's citizens."