TEHRAN, Iran, Sept 3, 2008 — -- Iran has sentenced four women's rights activists to six months in jail, including one who was awarded a $75,000 human rights prize in Sweden this year, campaigners said on Wednesday.
It was the latest sign of a clampdown on activists working to change legislation which they say discriminates against women in the Islamic Republic. Iran rejects accusations of bias.
Dozens of activists have been detained over the last two years and several have received mostly suspended prison terms.
"This is part of a backlash against women's rights activists who demand equal rights in a patriarchal system," campaigner Sussan Tahmasebi said about this week's sentencing by a court.
She said Parvin Ardalan, Maryam Hosseinkhah, Jelveh Javaheri and Nahid Keshavarz would appeal. Their defence lawyers include Shirin Ebadi, Iran's 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
The activists write on women's issues on the Internet and were accused of actions against national security by spreading propaganda against the state, a common charge against dissenting voices in Iran.
"You can't accuse people on security charges for expressing their opinions," said Tahmasebi, who is appealing a partly suspended two-year jail sentence issued last year.
There was no immediate comment from the judiciary.
The four are also leading figures in a campaign to try and collect one million signatures in support of improving women's rights in Iran. Ardalan this year received Sweden's Olof Palme Prize for her work.
Campaigners say close to 50 of them have been detained since the drive began in 2006, in what Western diplomats see as part of a wider crackdown on dissent. Most were freed within days.
"The security strategy of this country is that where there is dissent -- workers, women, bloggers -- they crack down on it right away, because they are afraid of the domino effect," said one Iranian analyst, who asked not to be named.
The 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.
Ardalan, 41, received a two-year suspended jail sentence earlier this year for her role in an activists' gathering in 2007. This followed a partly suspended three-year prison term for involvement in another banned demonstration in 2006.
In March, police stopped her from flying out of Iran to pick up the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm and seized her passport.
Ardalan said on Wednesday she learnt about her latest sentence two days ago. "I think they try to stop all activists," she said of the authorities.
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Editing by Janet Lawrence