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Morocco: Rif protest leader Nasser Zefzafi sentenced to 20 years

A court sentenced Nasser Zefzafi and other activists who were involved in organising demonstrations in Al Hoceima.

The leader of a protest movement that shook Morocco's northern Rif region for months over social and economic issues has been sentenced for 20 years.

A court in Casablanca on Tuesday sentenced 39-year-old Nasser Zefzafi, who was arrested in May last year and later transferred to a prison in the port city.

Zefzafi was involved in organising demonstrations in his hometown of Al Hoceima.

The social unrest in the region followed the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fishmonger crushed in a rubbish track as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.

Calls for justice for Fikri, 31, evolved into a grassroots movement demanding jobs and economic development, with Zefzafi, himself unemployed, emerging as the leader of the Hirak el-Shaabi, or Popular Movement, based largely in Al Hoceima.

Zefzafi was charged with undermining public order and threatening national unity.

His arrest in 2017 was ordered after he allegedly interrupted a preacher at a mosque to call for further demonstrations.

Prosecutors had said the arrest was ordered after he "obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship" at the mosque in Al Hoceima.

Since, smaller protests have become a daily occurrence in the town.

As part of the same verdict, movement leaders Nabil Ahmijeq, Wassim El Boustani and Samir Aghid were also given 20 years in prison, while three others received a 15-year jail sentence.

Meanwhile, seven activists were sentenced to five years in prison and six others were given a 10-year jail sentence.

Seven activists were sentenced to three years in prison, while 12 defendants received a two-year prison sentence. An activist was given a one-year suspended prison sentence.

In total, 53 people were handed sentences on Tuesday following a nine-month trial. 

Speaking to Reuters News Agency by phone, the activists' lawyer Bouchra Rouis said the sentences were "unfair", adding that there will be an appeal against the ruling after a discussion with the defendants.

The mainly ethnically Berber Rif region has long had a tense relationship with Morocco's central authorities and was at the heart of Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011.

The main protests subsided following a series of political reforms, including constitutional changes that saw King Mohamed VI give up some of his wide-ranging powers.

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