RABAT/CASABLANCA (Reuters) - Moroccan police beat protesters who defied a ban on demonstrations across the country on Sunday, leading to arrests and dozens of injuries, some of them life threatening, witnesses said.
The violence appears to signal a tougher government line against the protest movement, which has become more defiant after festive demonstrations starting in February, but has yet to attract mass public support.
Some protesters are also becoming more outspoken about criticizing King Mohammed but the demonstrations have failed to match the scale of those in several other Arab countries.
Much of the anger was directed at the Makhzen, Morocco's royal court. "Protest is a legal right, why is the Makhzen afraid?" crowds in Casablanca chanted. "Makhzen get out. Down with despotism."
A Reuters correspondent saw seven riot police attacking one bearded man in his 30s, repeatedly hitting his head and body, causing severe bleeding.
"We have been called here to preserve order because of this unauthorized protest," said a senior police officer on the scene who declined to give his name.
In Fes, three leading members of the city's protest movement were in "very critical condition," said demonstrator Fathallah al-Hamdani. Injured were also reported in Tangier and elsewhere.
No one was available at the Interior Ministry to comment on the protesters' reports.
Protesters wanted to camp in front of the parliament in Rabat, but authorities were anxious to avoid a repeat of the events in Cairo earlier this year when protesters occupying Tahrir Square eventually helped to topple the government.
In major cities, police armed with batons and shields moved people off the streets wherever they gathered. Protesters broke off into smaller groups, often with police chasing behind.
One protest leader in Rabat who had already been beaten a week ago suffered severe concussion on Sunday, said protester Jalal Makhfi.
Some human rights activists were beaten in front of police headquarters where they had tried to win the release of 13 members of the AMDH human rights group, said Khadija Riyadi, another member of the group.
Demonstrators said police beat dozens in Casablanca.
"We are standing together for dignity," one protest leaflet said. "We are against despotism, against corruption. We are for dignity, freedom, democracy and social justice."
Long seen as a relatively moderate and stable state, Morocco has experienced increasing unrest this year inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
In recent months, protesters seeking more democratic rights and economic benefits have held several nationwide protests in the country of 32 million, resulting in at least six deaths.
On Friday, a group of jobless graduates worked their way through a crowd to near the king after he led Friday prayers and chanted "Your majesty, we want jobs." State television cut off a live broadcast as the slogans began.
The outburst was considered a daring breach of protocol in a country where the king's portrait adorns many shops and public spaces and many treat him with reverence. The king is also the commander of the faithful, the leader of Moroccan Muslims who is said to descend from the Prophet Mohammed.
The royal family has ruled Morocco since the 17th century and survived both French colonial rule and independence.
Morocco has the lowest per capita GDP in the Maghreb region that also includes Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Many live in poverty and nearly half of the population is illiterate.
In response to the public protests, the king announced in March that he would amend the constitution to allow more democratic rights. A commission is due to announce a draft constitution next month.
Editing by David Stamp