AL-HOCEIMA, Morocco (AFP) — Authorities in Morocco on Monday arrested the fugitive leader of a protest movement that has shaken the country’s northern Rif region for months.
The prosecutor of the northern coastal city of Al-Hoceima said Nasser Zefzafi, who had been on the run since Friday, had been taken into custody.
He was detained “along with other individuals” and transferred to Casablanca, the prosecutor said in a statement, without providing further details of the arrests.
Those held will be investigated for “undermining the security of the state” and other criminal acts, the prosecutor added.
The Rif region has been shaken by social unrest since the death in October of a fishmonger crushed in a rubbish truck as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.
Calls for justice for Mouhcine Fikri, 31, evolved into a grassroots movement demanding jobs and economic development, with Zefzafi, himself unemployed, emerging as the leader of the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or “Popular Movement,” based largely in Al-Hoceima.
Zefzafi’s arrest was ordered after he allegedly interrupted a preacher at a mosque on Friday and called for further demonstrations.
Prosecutors said the arrest was ordered after Zefzafi “obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship” at the mosque in Al-Hoceima.
The protest leader later appeared in footage broadcast on social media saying he was “safe and sound” and calling for further demonstrations.
As of Monday evening police had arrested 40 people in connection with the disturbances in Al-Hoceima, according to officials.
For its part, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) said it had identified 50 people detained and that “the number of arrests continues to rise” and had passed 70 across the whole province.
The state bears “full responsibility for the consequences of this repressive approach” in the face of peaceful demonstrations in support of “the legitimate demands of the people,” AMDH added.
Protestors have come out on the streets every night since Friday in Al-Hoceima, a city of some 56,000 residents.
On Monday night more than 2,000 demonstrators shouted slogans such as “We are all Zefzafi!” while anti-riot police looked on.
The protest ended around midnight without incident, but over the weekend demonstrators clashed with police, with three members of the security forces reported to have been seriously hurt on Friday.
Demonstrations were also reported in two other northern cities, Nador and Tangiers, as well as in Casablanca, Marrakesh and the capital Rabat, where some 300 people took part.
Media reports said an Algerian journalist from El Watan newspaper was arrested in Nador.
Morocco’s MAP news agency later said he was expelled because he was working without proper “authorization.”
Authorities have accused protesters of receiving money and other support from abroad “to carry out propaganda activities.”
The mainly ethnically Berber Rif region has long had a tense relationship with Morocco’s central authorities, and was at the heart of Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011.
The protests subsided following a series of political reforms including constitutional changes that saw King Mohamed VI give up some of his wide-ranging powers.
Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit led a large delegation to Al-Hoceima last week, the latest in a series of government trips to the region.
Officials have promised increased support for the local economy, in particular the crucial fishing industry.
Zefzafi, 39, emerged as the leader of the movement by broadcasting passionate speeches online in the local Tarifit dialect from his home or the street, denouncing “corruption” and “dictatorship.”
Zefzafi and other activists insist the movement is not seeking independence for the region, despite its long history of resistance to central rule and the fact that some protesters have waved the flag of the short-lived Rif republic that existed from 1921 to 1926.