Moroccan court jails Rif protest leader for 20 years

RABAT (Reuters) - The leader of protests over economic and social problems in Morocco’s northern Rif region was sentenced to 20 years in prison, provoking outrage among his family and activists.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Hundreds protested on Wednesday against the conviction of Nasser Zefzafi by a Casablanca court the night before on charges of undermining public order and threatening national unity. A number of other activists were also jailed for up to 20 years.

Zefzafi was arrested in May 2017 after organizing demonstrations in his hometown of Al Hoceima in what came to be called the “popular movement”.

“We were expecting such a cruel sentence because officials in this country have never surprised us with good news,” Zefzafi’s father Ahmed told Reuters.

“I met my son today. His morale is high. He told me he is ready to make sacrifices for this country and saluted all those who expressed solidarity with him,” he said.

The protests erupted after the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in October 2016, who was crushed inside a rubbish truck trying to recover fish confiscated by police.

The Al Hoceima demonstrations, along with those in the mining town of Jerada in early 2018, have been the most intense since unrest in 2011 that prompted King Mohammed VI to devolve some of his powers to an elected parliament.

As part of the same verdict, Al Hoceima protesters Nabil Ahmijeq, Wassim El Boustani and Samir Aghid were also given 20 years in prison. Another 35 activists were jailed for between two and 15 years and one got a one-year suspended sentence.

State lawyer Mohamed Al Houssaini Karout told Reuters the sentences were very light compared with what the law allowed.

“Some defendants were tried on three charges punishable each by capital punishment, a life sentence and 30 years in jail but they only received 20 years in prison,” he said.

Some of the accused had been indicted for serious crimes including attacking law enforcement officers, “some of whom are permanently handicapped”, he added.

However, Naima El Gallaf, a lawyer for the popular movement activists, described Zefzafi’s sentence on her Facebook page as cruel and retaliatory.

Activist and lawyer Bouchra Rouissi told Reuters that there would be an appeal after consultation with the defendants. “These are unfair sentences,” she said.

Hundreds gathered in the capital Rabat on Wednesday evening to protest against the verdict, carrying pictures of Rif detainees and banners reading “freedom, dignity and social justice”.

A video, which could not be independently verified by Reuters, was also shared by Moroccan social media users who said it showed people marching in Al Hoceima and the nearby town of Imzouren to protest the sentence late on Tuesday.

After the Rif protests, King Mohammed dismissed the ministers of education, planning and housing and health, as well as other officials, for falling short of implementing a development plan for the region.

Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; editing by David Stamp