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Morocco court sentences protest leaders to 20 years in jail

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Moroccan activist and the leader of a protest movement Nasser Zefzafi gives a speech during a demonstration in the northern town of Hoceimas, May 18, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

The leaders of a protest movement in Morocco have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison in connection with the social unrest in the neglected Rif region.

A court in Casablanca late on Tuesday sentenced Nasser Zefzafi, who was detained last year and later transferred to a prison in the port city. He was involved in organizing demonstrations over economic and social problems in his hometown of Al Hoceima.

According to the Casablanca Court of Appeal judgment, a total of 53 people were sentenced after a near nine-month trial, with penalties ranging from a year in prison and a fine of 5,000 dirhams to 20 years in jail.

Zefzafi, the figurehead of the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi or the "Popular Movement," as well as other leaders Nabil Ahmjiq, Ouassim Boustati and Samir Ighid were jailed for "plotting to undermine the security of the state" over protests in the troubled region in 2016.

Journalist Hamid el Mahdaoui, who was tried alongside the Hirak protesters, will have a separate hearing on Thursday.

Outside the court, a few demonstrators yelled slogans like "Long live the Rif" or "We are Zefzafi".

Family and friends of the accused cried out in shock when the heaviest sentences were read out in court.

"These are very harsh sentences. The state has failed the test of respecting human rights and essential freedoms, just like the independence of the judiciary," said Souad Brahma, one of the defense lawyers.

The verdict “was cruel and retaliatory,” said Naima El Gallaf, Hirak activists' lawyer, in a Facebook posting.

Bouchra Rouis, another lawyer, said, “These are unfair sentences.” There will be an appeal against the ruling after consultation with the defendants, the lawyer added.

Like most of his co-defendants, Zefzafi boycotted the final days of the trial and refused to give a statement in the last hours of the process.

The unemployed 39-year-old became a figurehead in the demonstrations for his talent for oratory. He was arrested in May 2017 after allegedly interrupting a preacher at a mosque to call for further protests. He was charged with undermining public order and threatening national unity.

Northern Morocco was rocked by months of protests after the death in October 2016 of a fishmonger who was crushed in a rubbish truck as he tried to retrieve swordfish confiscated by authorities.

Thousands of people took to the streets in Hoceima and later in other cities when they heard that Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death inside a garbage truck. They demanded justice for the 31-year-old.

The protests quickly snowballed into a wider social movement led by Hirak.

Security forces seize a demonstrator in Rabat on June 20, 2017, during a protest in support of the grassroots movement for the neglected Rif region in Morocco. (AFP photo)

The months-long demonstrations have been described as the largest in scale since a political uprising in Morocco in 2011. The protests that year forced King Mohamed VI to launch constitutional reforms and relinquish some of his near-absolute powers.

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