The charismatic leader of a Moroccan protest movement has been sentenced to the maximum 20 years in prison along with three activists after mass demonstrations touched off by the death of a fish seller.
Nasser Zefzafi and the three others were convicted of threatening state security. Fifty other activists in the 2017 Hirak Rif protests received sentences ranging from one to 15 years for lesser charges.
The convictions late Tuesday immediately touched off new protests in the town of Hoceima, the center of the Hirak Rif movement that has marked the biggest challenge to the North African kingdom since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
The seeds of the protest began in October 2016 when an impoverished fish seller in the Berber Rif region was crushed to death trying to retrieve a valuable swordfish seized by police and tossed into a garbage truck.
Zefzafi, who was arrested in June 2017 after a manhunt, quickly became the movement’s public face, demanding development of the region and creation of jobs in the Rif region, which has lagged economically. The uprising briefly spread to other parts of Morocco.
The Rif maintains a strong identity apart from Morocco, due largely to a brief stint as an independent republic from 1921-1926, when its legendary rebel leader Abd el-Krim defeated the Spanish army. In 1959 and 1984, the current king’s father, Hassan II, crushed uprisings in the Rif.
Soon after the 2017 protests, Moroccan King Mohammed VI promised development projects for the region and pardoned some of the hundreds of protesters who had been detained.