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Iran Detains Three Women's Activists

TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iranian police have detained three women's rights activists, the latest in dozens of such arrests over the last few years in the Islamic Republic, a fellow campaigner said on February 1.

They were seized in the mountains north of Tehran on January 30 when collecting signatures in support of a campaign seeking changes to legislation which activists say discriminates against women. Iran rejects accusations of bias.

Sussan Tahmasebi, a leading member of the campaign, said one of those held was accused of spreading propaganda against the state, a common charge against women's rights campaigners.

A second detainee was released on January 31, and the third was likely to be released on February 1, she said.

Activists say 47 of them have been detained since they launched a campaign in 2006 to collect 1 million signatures in support of demands for changes in laws they say deny women in Iran equal rights in matters such as divorce and child custody.

Most were freed after a few days or weeks.

"Obviously there are people who don't want laws that are discriminatory against women to change," Tahmasebi told Reuters.

She suggested the latest arrests may be a message from the authorities ahead of the International Women's Day on March 8, when activists in the past have held rallies or meetings.

"We faced a lot of pressure all along," she said of the so-called 1 million signature campaign. The latest detentions could be an "attempt to reel us in right before" March 8.

Western diplomats and rights groups say the arrests of women's rights campaigners form part of a broader crackdown on dissenting voices, possibly in response to external pressure on Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.

Activists say women in Iran face institutionalised discrimination that makes them second-class citizens in divorce, inheritance, child custody and other aspects of life.

Iran dismisses accusations it discriminates against women, who are legally entitled to hold most jobs and can vote.

Despite the arrests, Tahmasebi said the campaign had been successful in raising public awareness about women's rights.

A recent parliament decision to allow women to inherit land from their husbands or fathers was a "huge accomplishment".

She also praised a judiciary directive last year under which women who suffer injury or death in a car accident will be entitled to the same insurance company compensation as men.

Under Iran's sharia law imposed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, compensation for the loss of a woman's life, "blood money," is half that paid for a man. This rule, which applies to physical injury as well, had also governed payments from insurance companies even though both sexes paid equal premiums.