A noose for the country
Moroccoʹs sentencing of Nasser Zefzafi

When civil liberties contract

The sentencing of a prominent opposition activist to jail long-term has shaken critics of Moroccoʹs government. Activists and analysts alike warn of ill omens for the countryʹs political trajectory. By Tom Stevenson

On 26 June, the leader of Moroccan anti-government protest movement Hirak al-Shaabi, Nasser Zefzafi, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment after his arrest in May 2017 for "obstructing freedom of worship".

In total 54 anti-government activists were sentenced to lengthy jail time by a Casablanca court, with three of the most prominent of their number, in addition to Mr Zefzafi, handed 20 year sentences. Seven other protesters received 10 to 15 year sentences. Journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui also received a three year jail sentence.

Mr Zefzafi led large demonstrations in April 2017 in the city of Hoceima and the northern Moroccan Rif region against government corruption and inequality, demanding better hospitals, jobs and social support.

The protests originally came in response to the death of fish-seller Mohsen Fikri, who was killed in Hoceima when he refused to pay a bribe to a local official, who then ordered a garbage truck to crush him as he attempted to rescue his confiscated catch. Since then, an anti-government movement known as Hirak al Shaabi has challenged what it describes as the ruling eliteʹs huqra (contempt) and tahakoum (despotic rule).

Judicial proceedings "influenced by the government"

Mr Zefzafi has been imprisoned in Casablanca, outside of the Rif region, where he has been held for months in solitary confinement. He and the other political prisoners in Casablanca boycotted their later trial hearings, alleging that the judicial proceedings were being influenced by the government. As a result the prisoners were sentenced in absentia.

Soraya El Kahlaoui (source: YouTube)
Anxiety growing among the Moroccan population: "the state has responded to the Hirak protesters not just with repression, but also with racist propaganda about the Rif and its people," says El Kahlaoui. "And this was a pacifist movement simply making basic social demands – where is the logic in this? Everyone here has begun to be afraid not only of arrest, but also of the political climate the state is creating"

"The sentence was pronounced without the prisoners or their families present; it was quite shocking," said Soraya El Kahlaoui, a member of the solitary committee with the Hirak prisoners, which works with the families of political prisoners in Casablanca, who attended the trial. "We had been preparing for the trial for a year, but when we heard the sentences we were traumatised," she added.

El Kahlaoui said Zefzafi and four other prisoners have refused to lodge an appeal against the convictions as part of their boycott of the legal proceedings and in protest against what they describe as an unfair trial. The detainees, who are held in Casablancaʹs Oukacha prison, have been on hunger strike since 29 June in complaint against prison conditions and the conduct of the prison authorities.

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