Morocco protest leader goes on trial

Protesters held a noisy rally outside the court

CASABLANCA - A protest leader who spearheaded demonstrations that rocked northern Morocco earlier this year went on trial Tuesday in a packed courtroom in the city of Casablanca.
Unemployed Nasser Zefzafi, 39, who was arrested in May, faces the death penalty for allegedly "undermining the internal security of the state" after becoming the flag bearer for the protest movement in the impoverished Rif region.
Zefzafi's silhouette could be seen through the opaque glass in the courtroom alongside some 30 other defendants, in his first public appearance since his detention.
His co-accused are facing between five and 20 years behind bars.
A judge quickly suspended the hearing to restore order as some 50 lawyers and dozens of relations of those on trial struggled to squeeze into the small courtroom. A next hearing was later set for October 31.
Supporters of the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement", protesters held a noisy rally outside the court ahead of the trial to demand their release.
Representatives for the accused slammed the tight security surrounding the trial, claiming that the authorities were trying to drum up an atmosphere of fear around the defendants.
"The state wants to show that the accused are dangerous, but that is not the case," lawyer Isaac Charia said.
"They are peaceful people and innocent."
Months of protests roiled northern Morocco earlier this year after anger was sparked by the gruesome death of a fisherman who was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he tried to retrieve a confiscated catch.
The largely peaceful demonstrations snowballed from grievances over poverty into a major challenge to the authorities in the kingdom.
In response, security forces launched a crackdown, slinging the alleged leaders of the mainly young protesters in jail in May and June.
On Tuesday some 20 other defendants arrested over the protests were also due to appear for their fourth hearing.
In addition, the Casablanca court was expected to hear the case of journalist Hamid El Mahdaoui, who is accused of failing to inform the authorities of an attempt to harm "state security" over the protests.