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Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani has raised hopes that there will be progress in the country on the issue of human rights. He pledged to release political prisoners. And last September, 80 prisoners were freed. Among them, a high profile human rights lawyer.

NPR'S Deborah Amos met her in Tehran and brings us her story.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Nasrin Sotoudeh recalls her sudden release from prison over breakfast at her modest apartment in the Iranian capital. A lawyer and a human rights activists, she was halfway through a six-year sentence on charges of acting against national security when prison officials told her she could go home.

NASRIN SOTOUDEH: They told me: Go, you are free. They told me.

AMOS: She was dropped off at her front door, to the surprise of her husband and two children. They'd often been barred from even visiting her in Iran's harshest political prison. Her family also feared for her health after repeated hunger strikes - the longest, 49 days - until authorities lifted a travel ban on her 12-year-old daughter. Then suddenly, on a September evening, she was simply told her prison term was over.

That must have been very strange?

SOTOUDEH: Yes...

(LAUGHTER)

SOTOUDEH: ...very interesting for me because I didn't expect it.

AMOS: Unexpected for her but the timing was less than a week before President Rouhani made his first speech before the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The release of Sotoudeh, the country's most prominent human rights activist, seemed the most tangible sign of a new era - a reversal of the dark days following the contested 2009 elections, when thousands of civil rights protesters known as the Green Movement were tried and hauled off to jail.

HADI GHAEMI: I am Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

AMOS: He says Sotoudeh was one of the last lawyers taking on human rights and political cases before her arrest in 2010; a voice for the voiceless silenced by a long jail term. U.S. officials demanded her release. Human rights groups made her an icon. In Europe, she was awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize while in jail.

GHAEMI: Nasrin, in a way, had become the most well-known prisoner of conscious in Iran.

AMOS: Did they get points for releasing her?

GHAEMI: Yes, because especially when they released her, they also promised to be releasing the rest of the Green Movement prisoners in the coming months.

AMOS: But many remain jailed and political opposition leaders are still under house arrest. This weighs heavily on the 50-year-old soft spoken lawyer. She says she wants those still imprisoned to feel what she calls the atmosphere of freedom.

Do you feel the atmosphere of freedom now that you are out of prison?

SOTOUDEH: (Through Translator) No, not really.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Since her release, she's has become a target for Iran's hardliners, especially after meeting with a European delegation last year that linked progress on human rights with the nuclear talks. Her home was ransacked soon after. Her husband posted the details on Facebook.

SOTOUDEH: (Through Translator) Two weeks after the EU visit, the robbery happened and we were attacked on hardline websites.

(APPLAUSE)

AMOS: Here she is at a literary gathering in March, hosted by a writer who had been jailed for satirical poems critical of the government. She got a standing ovation. The video was posted on YouTube. This was her first public speech since her release, says Ghaemi. And Sotoudeh showed she will continue to speak out for civil rights.

SOTOUDEH: (Foreign language spoken)

GHAEMI: She said: I may be free, I may be out of this small prison, but we are all limited and still being circumvented by the big prison, which is the entire country.

AMOS: There are risks, he says, but Sotoudeh knows the price. And she's committed to staying in Iran. She says the election of Hassan Rouhani has at least opened a space for dissident voices.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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