TANGIERS, Morocco – Hundreds of protesters marched in Morocco's capital Wednesday to denounce the convictions of a charismatic protest movement leader and three other activists, all given the maximum prison sentence of 20 years over mass demonstrations touched off by the death of a fish seller.
The show of public anger over the convictions signaled anew that the discontent among Moroccans, originally anchored in the northern Rif region, was shared around the North African kingdom.
Protesters in the capital, Rabat, gathered in front of the parliament building and then marched up a central avenue. Earlier in the day, there were protests in the northern town of Hoceima, the center of the Hirak Rif movement that represents the biggest challenge to the kingdom since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
"Take us all to jail," ''We are all Rif" and "State, beware" were among the chants repeated by the many hundreds of protesters in Rabat as dozens of police office surveyed the crowd.
Hirak Rif leader Nasser Zefzafi and the three activists were convicted late Tuesday of threatening state security. Fifty other activists in the 2017 Hirak Rif protests received sentences ranging from one to 15 years for lesser charges.
Mohammed Ziane, who represented the activists before they suspended their legal defense, said they would appeal.
"The verdict will certainly not comfort spirits, especially since the Hirak demands have not been met," Ziane said. "To send people to prison for 20 years for asking for their rights is clearly meant to scare. But we can already see it's not scaring people."
Protesters demanded that King Mohammed VI fulfill promises he made last year to build a school, a university and a hospital in the neglected Rif region.
"May the people live, and may those who abuse power fall," protesters cried out.
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 and the 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 — and never set foot in the region. Son Mohammed has traveled there.
Soon after the 2017 protests, the Moroccan monarch promised development projects for the region and pardoned some of the hundreds of protesters who had been detained.