The leader of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region has unexpectedly pardoned a Moldovan journalist imprisoned for espionage.
The separatist region's Olvia news agency said Igor Smirnov signed the pardon following a written appeal from journalist Ernest Vardanean.
After arriving home in Tiraspol, Vardanean told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service: "I don't know yet how [the pardon] was politically justified. I learned about it just two hours ago, you know. All of a sudden, they came to me and said: 'Get your stuff quickly. You're being released.'"
"It's still a shock for me. I still cannot believe that I am home now," he added.
A court in Transdniester sentenced Vardanean in December 2010 to 15 years in prison for espionage in a verdict that prompted protests from the international community that the charges were unfounded.
"The authorities themselves understand that the whole case is illegal. And now they are trying to position their move as the great humanitarian gesture," prominent human rights activist Stepan Popovski told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service from Tiraspol.
"From the very beginning, the authorities understood that they were conducting an unjust process. And now, in order to turn things upside down, the gesture is made as if it is a humanitarian act, in order to cover up their own lawlessness."
The 30-year-old journalist was working for "Novy Region," a Russian news agency critical of Transdniester's authorities, when he was arrested in April 2010 in Tiraspol.
Authorities said he was spying for Moldova's secret services, and he was ultimately charged with high treason, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
After the verdict was handed down, Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister Victor Osipov told RFE/RL that Vardanean's case appeared to be an attempt by Transdniester's politicians to undermine the central Moldovan government's efforts to build trust and confidence between Chisinau and Tiraspol.
Transdniester, which broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s over fears that it would reunite with Romania, is not recognized internationally but has de facto independence.
Vardanean isn't the only person Transdniester has sent to prison on charges of spying. In February, Ilie Cazac, a 25-year-old tax inspector from the Transdniestrian town of Bender, was sentenced to 14 years in prison after being detained in March 2010 and accused of high treason and espionage on behalf of Moldova.
Like many residents of the unrecognized breakaway region, Cazac is thought to hold a Moldovan passport.
Supporters demonstrate for the release of Ilie Cazac, who is serving a 14-year jail sentence in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region for espionage and high treason.
Moldova's government denounced his February 9 sentencing as "illegal" and a violation of human rights.
Chisinau, the European Union, and the United States have repeatedly called for both men's release.
Eugen Carpov, the reintegration minister for Moldova, told RFE/RL on May 5 that justice had now been done in one case, but efforts to free Cazac continue.
"The situation of the detainees Vardanean and Cazac has been permanently on our agenda for the meetings with international officials and Transdniestrian officials," he said.
"As a human being I am by his side because he suffered and his freedom was taken away for more than a year."
Carpov added that his government would continue its efforts to obtain the release of Ilie Cazac, whose situation was "similar" to Vardanean's.
Ion Manole, head of Moldovan watchdog group PromoLex, told RFE/RL that he hopes Vardanean continues to proceed with the case he had taken to the European Court of Human Rights over his imprisonment.
"If I were him I wouldn't withdraw it," he said. "His release does not mean that his rights have not been violated and he has not suffered prejudices."
Back at home in Tiraspol, Vardanean said he is struggling to make sense of his sudden freedom and to "grasp the reality" of the unexpected change in his situation.
"The most important [thing] for me is to start believing that my release is true and that my children are by my side," he said.
"I need to calm down now, and we shall see later."
With reporting from RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.