By Ahmed Eljechtimi
RABAT (Reuters) - A Casablanca appeals court confirmed late on Friday the 20-year prison sentence against Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of protests that shook the northern Rif region in late 2016 and 2017, along with three other protesters, lawyers said.
Zefzafi was arrested in May 2017 after organising demonstrations in his predominantly Amazigh (Berber) hometown of Al Hoceima over economic and social problems.
Last June, a first instance verdict gave three other Al Hoceima protesters, Nabil Ahamjik, Ouassim Boustati and Samir Ighid, 20 years in prison. Another 35 activists were jailed for between two and 15 years and one received a one-year suspended sentence.
“This is a shocking verdict,” said Mohamed Aghnaj, lawyer of the protesters. “Upholding the first instance sentences shows that the appeals court did not sufficiently examine the case,” he told Reuters by phone.
State lawyer Mohamed Al Houssaini Karout said the court confirmed the verdict "as there was nothing new to look at after the defendants and their lawyers abstained from attending the hearings." The court was “clement” in sentencing Zefzafi to 20 years in jail because he was tried on charges punishable with up to 30 years, he said.
As part of the same verdict, local journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui, who covered the protests, saw his three-year sentence confirmed. His sister Nadia expressed grief at the verdict, voicing hope to see her brother acquitted at the court of cassation.
The protests erupted after a fishmonger was crushed inside a rubbish truck while trying to recover fish confiscated by authorities in the northern city of Al Hoceima in October 2016.
The Al Hoceima demonstrations, along with protests in the mining town of Jerada in early 2018, marked the biggest unrest in Morocco since protests in 2011 prompted King Mohammed VI to devolve some of his powers to an elected parliament.
(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; Editing by Leslie Adler)