Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has pardoned a total of 188 people linked to the “Hirak” protest movement on the occasion of the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, the Moroccan National Council on Human Rights said on Tuesday.
The council initially reported that royal pardons had been granted to 11 activists serving sentences of two to three years in prison for their part in al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or “Popular Movement,” whose protests rocked the northern Rif region from 2016 to last year.
The other pardons concern people sentenced in connection with the demonstrations in the disadvantaged region, Moroccan media reported.
It was not immediately possible to get confirmation from the Moroccan Ministry of Justice, which published the list of people granted royal pardons.
The social unrest linked to the movement began in October 2016 after the death of a fisherman and spiraled into a wave of protests demanding more development in the neglected Rif region and railing against corruption and unemployment.
The pardoned Hirak detainees were immediately released and the council has begun coordinating with local authorities in various cities to prepare for their return home, a council official said.
A Casablanca-based court on June 26 sentenced 53 Hirak members to prison terms ranging from one year to 20 years. The severity of the punishment sparked anger and protests, along with appeals for royal clemency.
The total number of convictions tied to Hirak are not known, but the protests have led to more than 400 arrests, the council said.
The movement’s leader, Nasser Zafzafi, who was sentenced with three companions to 20 years in prison for threatening the security of the state, was not among those named in the pardon list.
Nor was journalist Hamid el Mahdaoui, sentenced to three years for covering the events.
The defendants in the Casablanca trial have appealed and a hearing is scheduled for October.
Amnesty International has called for the verdicts and sentences to be overturned “due to the unfair nature of their trials.”
Authorities have said the trials were fair.
The 2016 protests began when fisherman Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death by a garbage truck while he was apparently trying to retrieve swordfish seized by authorities, as it was caught out of season.
Subsequent unrest in the Rif region, where the marginalized Berber ethnic group is the majority, focused on social issues as demonstrators demanded jobs and development.
Morocco is marked by glaring social and territorial inequalities, against a backdrop of high unemployment among young people.
Last year, the north African kingdom was ranked 123 out of 188 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index.
Royal pardons are traditionally handed down at major holidays.
Mohamed VI also pardoned 522 people for Youth Day on Tuesday, which is also the birthday of the monarch, who turned 55.
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