Thousands of demonstrators marched in Morocco's capital Sunday to condemn lengthy prison sentences given to dozens of activists, including the leader of the Hirak Rif poverty-fighting movement.
The demonstration brought one of the main avenues of Rabat to a standstill. Security forces kept watch as participants sang, "The people want the detainees released'' and "Long live Rif.''
Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi was sentenced to the maximum prison term of 20 years for threatening state security. Zefzafi, seen as the movement's public face, was arrested in 2017. An appeals court upheld his sentence and those of other activists this month.
Rif is the struggling region in northern Morocco where the Hirak movement was born in 2016, demanding development and job creation for the region.
Relatives, human rights organizations and left-wing parties are demanding the imprisoned activists' immediate release.
"They know they will die in prison,'' Zefzafi's father told The Associated Press. "The people protesting today know it, too. That's why they are here.''
The Rif uprising spread to other parts of Morocco, marking the biggest unrest in the kingdom since the 2011 Arab Spring protests, but the movement was silenced with the jailing of the activists.
Under rainy skies, protesters held Zefzafi's portrait as they gathered near the parliament building and chanted, "We are all Zefzafi.'' One wrote on his belly in Arabic: "You tortured us, you impoverished us, and you stripped us.''
"Zefzafi and his comrades demanded social justice and creation of schools and hospitals. How is that a crime?'' the secretary general of the opposition United Socialist Party (PSU), Nabila Mounib, said during Sunday's protest. "They want us to live in oppression.''
The appeals court confirmed the sentences because there was "nothing new to look at'' in the case, government lawyer Mohamed Al Houssaini Karout argued.
The seeds of the protest movement were planted when an impoverished fish seller in Rif was crushed to death while trying to retrieve a valuable swordfish that police officers had seized and tossed into a garbage truck.
In a speech in the region last year, Moroccan King Mohammed VI criticized the kingdom's social development programs as overlapping, uncoordinated and missing target populations.