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.

Grassroots resistance

The harsh sentencing has provoked a reaction across the country. A general strike was declared in Hoceima, which has seen large numbers of police and military personnel stationed in the city in response to the anti-government movement. Activists say almost 1000 Hirak protesters have been arrested since the movement emerged.

The Hirak activists have also organised a widespread boycott against companies owned by businessmen seen as close to the Moroccan government. In response Moroccan security forces have attempted to close off the area and have restricted information about Hirak by imposing sporadic Internet cuts. News outlets have been pressured by the authorities into limiting coverage of the protest movement.

Electronic poster of the consumer goods boycott in Morocco (source: Facebook)
Hitting the Makhzen where it hurts: in April 2018, in a further development to the Rif demonstrations of 2017, a mass online protest was launched in Morocco, calling on consumers to boycott leading milk, water and petrol brands. Support for the secretly organised campaign was huge, prompting the government to call for lower prices and forcing one firm to scale back operations

The sentences have nonetheless provoked protests in solidarity with the political prisoners across Morocco, with demonstrations held in the cities of Casablanca, Rabat, and Agadir. Solidarity vigils have also been held in Amsterdam, The Hague, Brussels, Tunis, Paris, Madrid, Turin and Frankfurt. On social media, Moroccans have compared Zefzafiʹs 20 year sentence with that of a convicted child rapist who was given just two years imprisonment.

"The state has responded to the Hirak protesters not just with repression, but also with what I would call racist propaganda about the Rif and its people," said 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 Rif has a history of being on the wrong end of repression from central government. The region, which was under Spanish rather than French colonial administration, had a separate colonial history to much of Morocco. Rebellions were frequent against Spanish control and after Moroccoʹs independence.

Analysts and government critics say there are few outlets to express dissatisfaction in the formal political system, particularly in the Rif. The political system is dominated by King Mohammed VIʹs palace and the royal council, an executive body staffed by the kingʹs former classmates from the College Royal in Rabat.

Moroccoʹs Royals on parade: King Mohammed VI flanked by his son, Prince Moulay Hassan (l.), and his brother Prince Moulay Rachid, welcomes the French president upon his arrival in Rabat on 14 June 2017 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/F. Senna)
Shoring up the status quo: "A significant number think the verdict is dangerous and will only foment violence or further protests. From the Rif to court cases against journalists and attacks on civil society, there is a general sense of a contraction of freedoms," says Issandr El Amrani, North Africa director for the International Crisis Group

Harsh verdict potentially dangerous

Public opinion in Morocco appears to feel the jail terms meted out to Nasser Zefzafi and the other protesters are excessively harsh, according to Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, who is based in Rabat. "Many donʹt think they deserve it, and there is also a significant number who think the verdict is dangerous and will only foment violence or further protests," El Amrani said.

The stepped up security measures in the Rif have not, for now, led to a major reaction in the centre and south of the country, but the governmentʹs treatment of the dissenters has led to fear of more unrest. Some observers are hoping that a royal pardon for Zefzafi and the demonstrators, which could be issued during one of the summer public holidays, will ease tensions.

Pardon or not, the treatment of the Rif protesters is evidence Morocco is moving towards greater political repression, according to El Amrani. "From the Rif to court cases against journalists and attacks on civil society, there is a general sense of a contraction of freedoms."

Tom Stevenson

© Qantara.de 2018

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