TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ A lawmaker jailed for speaking out against a hard-line campaign against supporters of Iran's liberal president was freed from prison Tuesday after the country's supreme leader ordered the release to defuse a mounting political crisis.
Hossein Loqmanian left Evin prison in northern Tehran hours after the parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, led a walkout from the legislature. Karroubi said he would not preside over the 290-seat body as long as Loqmanian remained imprisoned.
Loqmanian's release was hailed as a victory for liberals, who had vowed to fend off what they called an attempt by conservatives to intimidate parliament, a stronghold of the reform movement.
Parliament is dominated by pro-democracy supporters of President Mohammad Khatami, who has been locked in a power struggle with Islamic hard-liners. They have closed dozens of liberal newspapers and jailed or harassed presidential allies over the past year.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is regarded as the leader of the hard-liners, but he sometimes rules in favor of the opposition when tensions threaten to explode. A boycott by legislators could exacerbate tensions in a country where student groups, politicians and others have been clamoring for greater political and social freedoms.
Khamenei has the last word on all matters, and he alone can pardon prisoners.
Loqmanian, who was received with flowers and embraces from fellow lawmakers outside the prison, was the first legislator to be imprisoned for criticism since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Loqmanian had accused courts that have tried or jailed dozens of journalists and closed down nearly every pro-democracy newspaper of being ``unjust.'' He also defended journalists who stood up to the hard-liners and said the newspaper shutdowns were tantamount to the ``trampling of legal rights.''
After more than a year of hearings and appeals, Loqmanian was jailed Dec. 25 to serve a 10-month sentence for insulting the judiciary.
Outside Evin prison on Tuesday, a smiling Loqmanian told reporters: ``I will attend the open session of the parliament Wednesday. I thank all the people who defended my legal rights during my stay in jail.''
In a speech to parliament on Tuesday, Karroubi maintained ``the judicial branch has invaded the legislative branch.'' He called on Khamenei to resolve the matter.
Reformists had feared that after gagging the press, intimidating journalists and harassing pro-democracy activists, the hard-liners were beginning to target the legislature. Instead, the hard-liners backed down.
State television reported that Khamenei agreed to endorse Loqmanian's release upon a recommendation by the head of the judiciary. The broadcast did not say when Khamenei wrote his reply to Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi or when Shahroudi wrote his letter suggesting the pardon.
``Release of Loqmanian is a big political victory for reformists,'' said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a Tehran University professor and political analyst.
He noted the hard-liners ``began their crackdown ... by closing down newspapers and jailing journalists and students who were at the forefront of pushing democratic reforms. Then, the judiciary opened a new front, prosecuting lawmakers.''
``The whole process of reforms would have been in serious jeopardy if the parliament didn't resist and defend its constitutional rights,'' Bavand said.
Most Iranians have tired of political restrictions and laws that limit personal choices. Music, television and movies are tightly regulated, and men and women are not allowed to socialize together unless they are closely related.
Khatami had accused the judiciary of violating the constitution by prosecuting lawmakers despite their parliamentary immunity.
In cases similar to Loqmanian's, two other legislators have had their jail sentences upheld by an appeals court, but have not yet been jailed. Another legislator is appealing his jail sentence. All were convicted of various charges involving insulting officials and religious sanctities.
On Sunday, about 60 lawmakers walked out of the Majlis to protest Loqmanian's imprisonment.
Meanwhile, state television quoted Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the oversight Guardian Council, as saying that all citizens are equal before the law and that lawmakers should not enjoy special immunity, since ``immunity has no Islamic roots.''