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Moroccans on trial for mass protest boycott hearing

Fifty-four defendants are on trial for participating in protests following a fishmonger's death in Rif
Mass protests last year snowballed into a social movement demanding jobs for Morocco’s neglected northern Rif region (AFP)

Dozens of defendants on trial in Morocco for taking part in a mass protest movement last year boycotted Tuesday's hearing in Casablanca, denouncing "bias" in the justice system.

A total of 54 defendants are on trial over their involvement in the al-Hirak al-Shaabi movement that rocked the country's northern Rif region from late 2016 to mid-2017.

The defendants had warned the court of their action before the hearing via a joint letter seen by AFP.

But the case went ahead at Casablanca's Criminal Court of Appeal despite their absence.

The protesters are accused of using "violence" against police during the demonstrations.

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"Those responsible for the acts against the police will be punished in accordance with the prosecution's demands," said state prosecutor Brahim Rachidi.

Charges against the defendants range from simple misdemeanours to attacks on state security - a crime punishable by death in the North African kingdom.

Some 450 people were arrested during protests triggered by the October 2016 death of the fishmonger.

Mouhcine Fikri, 31, was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he tried to prevent the destruction of swordfish that had been confiscated after being caught out of season.

After his death, mass protests snowballed into a wider social movement that demanded development, an end to corruption and jobs for Morocco’s neglected northern Rif region, where the fishmonger had died.

Demands for justice spiralled into largely peaceful demonstrations against the "marginalisation" of Morocco's predominantly Berber region in the north.

Clashes between police and protesters left people injured on both sides.

Moroccan authorities claim that nearly 900 police were hurt during the demonstrations.

Rights groups have criticised the state's "security approach" to the protests and denounced the alleged torture of protest leaders after their arrest.