Long road ahead for families of jailed Morocco protesters
CASABLANCA - A 1,200-kilometre (750 mile) round bus trip taking about 22 hours: that is the weekly grind faced by families of activists arrested over a protest movement in northern Morocco if they want to see their loved ones jailed in Casablanca.
"The families of those detained are exhausted, every week it's the same ordeal," complained Rachid Ahbbad, as he visited his 19-year-old son Bilal who was jailed in June.
"Why do they make us go through this suffering?"
The Rif region of northern Morocco, a predominantly Berber area, was gripped earlier this year by months of angry demonstrations calling for jobs, development and an end to corruption in the North African kingdom.
Originally sparked by the death of a fisherman crushed in a rubbish truck as he tried to salvage his confiscated catch, the demonstrations snowballed from grievances over local poverty into a major challenge to the authorities.
In response, security forces launched a crackdown, slinging the alleged leaders of the mainly young protesters in jail in May and June.
"Our youths took to the streets because of legitimate complaints. The protests were peaceful but they were accused of being separatists," said Ahbbad.
- 'Major injustice' -
After 49 of those behind bars were transferred to Casablanca in western Morocco, their relatives have been forced to make the punishing journey to see them during the two hours of visiting time allowed each Wednesday.
On Tuesday evenings, a bus laid on by the National Council for Human Rights, an official organisation, sets off on the road from the Rif region's main town Al-Hoceima towards Casablanca, stopping to pick up passengers along the way.
The political crackdown on the protesters has attracted the attention of rights activists and sparked a sit-down protest in front of the Oukacha prison, Morocco's largest, in solidarity with the visiting relatives.
"The families need support," said Amine Abdelhamid, a veteran rights activist and member of the committee backing those arrested in the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi protest movement.
As Ahmed Zefzari emerged from the prison, he gave the latest news on his 39-year-old son Nasser, who became a flagbearer for the demonstrations with his diatribes against corrupt officialdom.
"Suffering destroys," he said.
A little later, the rest of the families came out through the imposing doors of the penitentiary.
Soufiane el-Hani, who was visiting her brother, said that around half of a group of 38 detainees had called off a hunger strike they launched to protest the conditions of their detention and demand freedom.
"My son has lost a lot of weight, he is pale and speaks with difficulty," said the mother of inmate Mohammed Jelloul, who had decided to push on with the strike.
"I tried to convince him to start eating but he refuses."
- 'They did nothing' -
Charged with "undermining the internal security of the state", "attempted sabotage, murder and looting" or "conspiracy" to destabilise the country, the protesters face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
That threat has left the families in despair.
"We want them to be freed, they did nothing but demand their rights," protested the mother of detainee Nabil Ahamjik.
For now, however, the long journey to and from the prison must continue.
Eventually the families board the bus for the return trip home, flicking victory signs at the activists supporting them through the windows as they leave.