Popular protests resumed Thursday night in the northern city of Al-Hoceima – and in several other Moroccan cities – following Taraweeh (nighttime Ramadan prayers) as two prominent human rights groups criticized the government's heavy-handed response to the demonstrations.
"Police arrested and severely beat the de facto leader of ongoing social protests in Morocco's Rif region… based on an account the protest leader gave his lawyer," Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International both said in a joint statement.
"Authorities are investigating Nasser Zefzafi, the protest leader, on grave charges, including one that carries the death penalty and some that appear political in nature," the statement read.
"Moroccan authorities should investigate the credible allegations of police violence against Zefzafi and refrain from filing any charges that stem from peaceful speech or protest," the statement quoted Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director, as saying.
She added: "At this stage, the case looks like it's more about throwing the book at a protest leader than punishing criminal behavior."
The same statement quoted Heba Morayef, Amnesty International's North Africa research director, as saying that, along with Zefzafi, "many other Rif protesters and activists have reported police brutality following arrest".
For the last nine months, Al-Hoceima — located in Morocco's northern Al-Rif region — has been roiled by protests by local youth demanding job opportunities and an end of perceived government corruption.
Demonstrations were initially sparked last October when a fisherman was crushed to death by a garbage truck in Al-Hoceima while protesting attempts by the local authorities to confiscate his fish.
Last week, Moroccan Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar said that more than 100 people had been arrested to date for taking part in the ongoing protests.