Amnesty hails release of pastor in Iran

London, England - Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday welcomed the release from prison in Iran of a Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who had been condemned to death for converting from Islam to Christianity.

But the London-based group's deputy director for the Middle East, Ann Harrison, emphasised in a statement that the Iranian pastor, who had been in prison for nearly three years, "should have never been arrested, let alone charged and tried."

She said he had been arrested in October 2009 for challenging an Iranian requirement that all children be taught the Koran, and said him being charged in a September 2011 trial of apostasy "put the lie to Iran's claims that it tolerates religious minorities."

Reports said Nadarkhani, who is in his mid 30s, was released on time served after being cleared of apostasy and charged instead with evangelizing Muslims. They gave no date for when he was freed.

There was no recent news of Nadarkhani, or confirmation about his release, in Iran's mainstream media or from officials. The last Iranian information about his case was that it had been referred to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The US State Department on Monday welcomed the reports of his release.

Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Nadarkhani's incarceration "harrowing" and his death sentence "in clear violation of Iran's international human rights commitments."

Nadarkhani converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19 and became pastor of a small evangelical community called the Church of Iran.

After his arrest and death sentence, human rights groups feared he could be executed at any time. Several Western countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Poland, condemned the sentence and called for his release.