Hundreds protest to free Morocco's northern activists

Demonstrators hold banners in Arabic reading "freedom" and "Death over humiliation" during a protest in Casablanca, Morocco, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. Hundreds of people from around Morocco protested Sunday in the nations economic capital, Casablanca, tThe Associated Press
Demonstrators hold banners in Arabic reading "freedom" and "Death over humiliation" during a protest in Casablanca, Morocco, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. Hundreds of people from around Morocco protested Sunday in the nation's economic capital, Casablanca, to demand freedom for jailed activists. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

Hundreds of people from around Morocco protested on Sunday in the nation's economic capital, Casablanca, to demand freedom for activists jailed for their roles in a protest movement that took off a year ago in a neglected northern city.

The demonstration was the latest of numerous protests demanding the liberation of activists from the city of Al Hoceima, in the northern Rif region where hundreds of protesters have been arrested.

Leading figures in the opposition movement known as Hirak will go on trial Oct. 17 in Casablanca. No trial date has been set for the movement's leader, Nasser Zefzafi — arrested in June after a dramatic manhunt. He could face up to 20 years in prison after a more serious drop was reduced, his lawyer Mohamed Ziane said.

Up to 1,000 protesters, led by organizers perched on a pickup truck with megaphones, gathered at a main Casablanca intersection Sunday, chanting "freedom, dignity, social justice."

"We are here to say, 'Enough,'" said Nabila Mounib, the president of the Federation of the Democratic Left. His federation of left-wing parties has rallied to the cause. "Release the detainees and open a debate on their demands, and above all fight the corruption that gangrenes the Rif region," Mounib said.

The protest movement has become the biggest challenge to the North African kingdom, a U.S. ally known for its stability, since the Arab Spring in 2011 overthrew longstanding regimes in the larger region. Yet, its roots are local. Protests started a year ago when a fish monger in Al Hoceina was crushed to death by a garbage compactor while trying to save fish that officials had confiscated.

The government has promised development projects for the region, which has a long history of rebellion against Morocco's leaders. King Hassan II, the father of monarch Mohammed VI, never visited the Rif region, something his son changed. At the end of July, the king, celebrating the 18th anniversary of his accession to the throne, included an undisclosed number of those arrested in the Al Hoceima region among the 1,178 inmates benefiting from annual pardons.