New protests shake Morocco's north

Protesters crowding the street during a demonstration against corruption, repression and unemployment in the Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima on May 30.
Protesters crowding the street during a demonstration against corruption, repression and unemployment in the Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima on May 30. PHOTO: AFP

AL-HOCEIMA, Morocco (AFP) - Thousands staged demonstrations for a fifth night running in northern Morocco to demand the release of the leader of a months-long protest movement in the neglected Rif region.

The region has been shaken by social unrest since the death in October of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri, 31, who was crushed in a rubbish truck in the fishing port of Al-Hoceima as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.

Initial protests triggered a wider movement demanding more development in the region and railing against corruption, repression and unemployment.

Nasser Zefzafi, who has emerged as the head of the grassroots Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement", was arrested on Monday (May 29) after three days on the run.

On Tuesday (May 30) night, shouting slogans such as "We are all Zefzafi" and "dignity for the Rif", the protesters took to the streets of central Hoceima after breaking the dawn-to-dusk Muslim fast of Ramadan.

The protesters, including women and children, held aloft hundreds of pictures of Zefzafi.

Others held up berber flags, the symbol of a strongly-felt regional identity in an area many claim has long been neglected by central authorities.

One brandished a sign saying "Free the prisoners or put us all in prison!"

Anti-riot police attempted to disperse the demonstrators, but pulled back following a tense but non-violent standoff.

Zefzafi was arrested on Monday morning for "attacking internal security".

A warrant for his arrest issued on Friday (May 26) sparked turmoil in Al-Hoceima, a city of 56,000 inhabitants, sparking clashes between demonstrators and security forces over the weekend.

"I'm proud of my son, he acted like a man," Zefzafi's tearful mother told AFP. "He has done nothing but protest peacefully for legitimate demands."

The father of fishmonger Fikri, also at the scene of the demonstrations, urged protesters to "carry on their peaceful movement".

Many demonstrators raised their hands and declared "loyalty to the Rif".

Handcuffed and hooded, three of them mimed a scene of arrest and torture.

The protests broke up before midnight without further incident.

Images shared on social media showed large demonstrations in other parts of the province, and activists posted videos they said showed security forces violently breaking up demonstrations.

In Rabat, around 200 people staged a sit-in outside the Parliament building which was violently dispersed by the police as soon as it began.

A similar scenario played out near the National Brigade of the Judicial Police (BNPJ) in Casablanca, where it is believed Zefzafi is being held.

Protests were held elsewhere across Al-Hoceima province.

State media outlets and politicians have remained largely silent on the events, but the local branches of three parties including the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) issued a joint statement warning of a "serious situation" and criticising the state's response.

Out of around 40 people authorities say they arrested on Friday, including core members of Al-Hirak, 25 have been referred to the prosecution.

Their trial began on Tuesday but has been pushed back to June 6 at the request of their lawyers, who have complained their clients were ill-treated during their detention.

Seven suspects were released on bail while another seven were released without charge.