Police in Morocco hunt protest leader in Rif region

The king’s prosecutor ordered “the opening of an investigation and the arrest of Nasser Zefzafi” after he obstructed "worship in the Mohammed V mosque in Al Hoceima”.

Moroccan activist Nasser Zefzafi banging on a pot during a protest in the northern city of Al Hoceima on May 6, 2017. / AFP / Mohamed el-Asrihi
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AL HOCEIMA, Morocco // Moroccan authorities on Saturday hunted for a protest leader in the neglected Rif region after his arrest was ordered for interrupting an imam’s prayer sermon following more than six months of unrest.

On Friday, the king’s prosecutor ordered “the opening of an investigation and the arrest of Nasser Zefzafi” after he “obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship in the Mohammed V mosque in Al Hoceima”.

The northern port has been rocked by protests since the death in October of a fishmonger crushed in a bin lorry as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.

Calls for justice for Mouhcine Fikri, 31, in the ethnically Berber Rif region soon evolved into a grass roots movement demanding jobs and economic development, with Mr Zefzafi emerging as the leader of the Al Hirak Al Shaabi, or Popular Movement.

According to the prosecutor, the protest leader on Friday stopped “the preacher from continuing his sermon, giving a provocative speech in which he insulted the imam and fomented disturbances that undermined the calm and sacredness of the place of worship”.

Mobile phone footage shared on Facebook showed Mr Zefzafi calling the imam a “liar”, asking whether mosques were built for God or those in power, and criticising “those who want to make the Rif capitulate”.

Mr Zefzafi also attacked a recent music festival in the capital Rabat, and the “naked bodies we see live on the television of a state that calls itself Muslim”.

A relative of Mr Zefzafi said the protest leader escaped arrest as he left the mosque on Friday.

Shortly after, in footage broadcast on social media, the leader appeared on his rooftop in Al Hoceima surrounded by supporters, saying: “I’m not scared. If they want to arrest me, let them come.”

In another video posted afterwards, he said he was “safe and sound” and called for peaceful demonstrations.

His supporters said his home had been searched.

A source at the interior ministry said Mr Zefzafi had not been arrested, adding that young protesters had thrown stones at security forces on Friday in the city of some 56,000 inhabitants.

Official news agency MAP said clashes between demonstrators and police wounded several people, including three members of the security forces who were seriously injured.

Interior minister Abdelouafi Laftit led a government delegation on a visit to Al Hoceima on Monday, the latest trip to the region to promise projects to boost the economy.

* Agence France-Presse