FILE - In this Oct.8, 2017 file photo, a man holds a portrait of activist Nasser Zefzafi as people take part in a demonstration demanding the liberation of activists, prompted by the death of a fish vendor, in Casablanca, Morocco. The charismatic leader of a Moroccan protest movement was sentenced to the maximum 20 years in prison along with three activists after mass demonstrations touched off by the death of a fish seller. Zefzafi and the three were convicted late Tuesday June 26, 2018 of threatening state security. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar, File)

Moroccan protest leader, 3 others get 20-year sentences

June 27, 2018 - 7:30 am

TANGIERS, Morocco (AP) — The charismatic leader of a Moroccan protest movement and three other activists have each been sentenced to the maximum of 20 years in prison after mass demonstrations touched off by the death of a fish seller.

The convictions late Tuesday immediately sparked new protests in the town of Hoceima, the center of the Hirak Rif movement that has marked the biggest challenge to the North African kingdom since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Nasser Zefzafi and the three others were convicted 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 defense, said they will appeal.

"The verdict will certainly not comfort spirits, especially since the Hirak demands have not been met," he 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."

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.

Soon after the 2017 protests, Moroccan King Mohammed VI promised development projects for the region and pardoned some of the hundreds of protesters who had been detained.

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