Sri Lanka's president on Monday pardoned a convicted Tamil editor whose 20-year prison sentence last year drew international condemnation, a minister said.
J. S. Tissainayagam, who wrote about the plight of the minority Tamil ethnic group during the country's 37-year civil war, was convicted in August under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act introduced in 1978.
His sentence of 20 years in jail with hard labour was seized on by critics internationally as an attack on press freedom by the regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse, which was already under fire for its human rights record
A total of 17 journalists and media employees have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past decade and many local reporters exercise self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the authorities.
"It was timely for the president to grant the pardon at a time when the media around the world is celebrating Press Freedom day," Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris told reporters.
World Press Freedom day is organised by the United Nations as an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Peiris admitted that the jailing of Tissainayagam had attracted international criticism at a time when Sri Lanka's human rights record is under close scrutiny.
US President Obama had cited Tissainayagam, who ran Outreachsl.com website and also wrote for the Colombo-based Sunday Times newspaper, as one of the "emblematic examples" of a persecuted journalist.
In January this year, Tissainayagam was freed on bail and was asked to surrender his passport, pending an appeal.
Neither Tissainayagam nor his lawyers were immediately available for comment, but he told the court in January that he had never supported violence.
The 46-year-old was honoured by Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders and was the first Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism on October.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also selected Tissainayagam as a recipient of a 2009 International Press Freedom Award.
Sri Lanka had been wracked by violence for more than three decades due to an insurgency by Tamil rebels before Rajapakse ordered a huge offensive against them which led to a government victory last May.
Up to 100,000 people are estimated by the UN to have died in the fighting, including thousands of civilians whose deaths in the final stages of the war last year have led to calls for a war crimes enquiry.
"We were surprised by the president's moves to pardon him," convener of the Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka, Chulawansa Srilal, told AFP. "We have been lobbying for a presidential pardon since the day Tissainayagam was jailed."
Peiris said the decision to release him was not aimed at "appeasing" the international community.
"We are not doing this to appease anyone," Peiris said. "It is done because it is the right thing to do."