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Morocco arrests more activists in northern protest, lawyers say

Political demonstrations are rare in Morocco but protests are spreading
Security forces seize a demonstrator in Rabat on 20 June 2017 during a protest in support of the grassroots movement for the neglected Rif region (AFP)

Moroccan authorities have arrested more activists involved in the country's biggest political protests since the Arab Spring, lawyers and rights groups said on Tuesday.

For months, demonstrators have taken to the streets around the northern city of Al-Hoceima to vent frustration over the economic, social and political problems of a kingdom that presents itself as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region.

Political demonstrations are rare in Morocco, where the king remains the ultimate power, but protests have spread to other parts of the country, reaching remote rural towns as well as major urban areas, including Rabat and Casablanca.

The Hirak movement was born after the death in October of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri who was crushed inside a garbage truck trying to recover fish confiscated by police. His death became a symbol of corruption and official abuses.

Authorities have arrested as many as 100 leaders and members of the movement, called Hirak al Chaabi in Arabic, or the Popular Movement, since the end of May, said Abdessadak Elbouchattaoui, one of the movement's lawyers.

"There are arrests on a daily basis," said Elbouchattaoui, who is among approximately 300 lawyers defending Hirak. "On average, there are about four arrests a day, sometimes reaching 10 a day."

The ministry of justice did not immediately return calls or messages seeking comment.

But Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar told a parliament session last week the government was acting with "maturity, responsibility, wisdom, and in accordance with legal provisions" in its management of Hirak protests in Al-Hoceima.

A court in Al-Hoceima last week also sentenced 25 members of Hirak to 18 months in prison.

Morocco's Ministry of Justice, which releases regular statements about arrests and charges, has not published one since 6 June when it announced further charges against Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi and others. These included "illegal and armed assembly, undermining territorial integrity, and threatening and insulting police".

On Monday night in Rabat, members of the independent Moroccan Human Rights Association attempted to mobilise in a protest in solidarity with Hirak, but were violently dispersed with truncheons by authorities.

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Calls for a "historic march" in Al-Hoceima for the holy Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr next weekend have begun circulating, saying the march will be held "if Hirak protesters are not released from prison beforehand".

Those calls came days after a publication close to the pro-palace Authenticity and Modernity party or PAM published an article suggesting the possibility of a royal pardon for the protesters on Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan.

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