Thousands of Moroccans keep up pressure over fishmonger's death

November 4, 2016 6:37 PM EDT

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By Aziz El Yaakoubi

AL-HOCEIMA, Morocco (Reuters) - Thousands of chanting, flag-waving Moroccans protested in a northern city on Friday, keeping up pressure on authorities a week after a fishmonger was crushed to death in a garbage truck in a confrontation with police.

The death of Mouhcine Fikri has prompted a week of street protests in some of the biggest and longest challenges to authority in the North African kingdom since pro-reform demonstrations broke out during the 2011 Arab Spring.

Thousands waved candles, flags in the local Amazigh language and banners used by the resistance against Spanish and French colonization, while chanting slogans against the Makhzen, a term used to describe the royal establishment and its allies.

Five years after the pro-democracy rallies shook Morocco, this week's unrest has been a reminder of the frustrations the monarchy managed to tame in the past with limited constitutional reforms, heavy welfare spending and tough security.

Friday's evening funeral followed by the demonstration was the latest in a series of rallies that started a week ago, packing a downtown square of Al-Hoceima, where many see Fikri as a symbol of abuses by officials, corruption and injustice.

"We are very sad, the Makhzen is killing us," the crowd chanted in the Amazigh language before switching to Arabic with "The people want those who killed the martyr."

The rally took place a day after the interior minister played down the unrest, saying the king had already responded to the demands by launching a deep investigation.

Morocco, a Western partner in the war against Islamist militancy, presents itself as a model of stability and gradual reform since 2011 in a region where jihadist violence and political turmoil have become the norm.

Public anger echoes Tunisia's own 2011 uprising when a street vendor set himself on fire over police abuses and triggered a revolt that swept Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from power and started the Arab Spring.

Unlike Tunisia, though, Morocco's protests and those in 2011 never directly challenged the deep-rooted monarchy, the Muslim world's longest-serving dynasty. Instead, they called for reforms and an end to official abuses.

This week's protests have been peaceful and police have kept a distance in a country where political protests are rare and usually heavily policed.

"Fikri died in a horrific way, and we are out to tell the Makhzen that crime will not go unanswered," said Loubna Obari, waving a candle.

SILENT MARCH

Al-Hoceima also has a long history of dissent. It is the capital of the Rif region, long seen as a hotbed of revolt, where the then crown prince, who later became King Hassan, in the late 1950s ordered his army to kill hundreds to crush a rebellion.

Friday's crowd later marched silently to the police station where Fikri was crushed by a trash truck's compactor when he was trying to stop authorities from destroying 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of swordfish they say he purchased illegally.

Details of the case emerged first in grainy video shown online where he can be heard screaming. An investigation confirmed how he died, but activists blamed the police for ordering him crushed, a charge officials denied.

But the way in which Fikri died, and details of suspected corruption of officials involved in confiscating his fish, have shocked Moroccans.

"He was stuck in that truck for almost two hours, authorities did not know how to handle it especially with the spontaneous gathering," Souhail Fikri, one of the victim's eldest brothers, told Reuters, at the family home in Imzouren, 15 km (10 miles) from Al-Hoceima.

Souhail said Fikri's body was still in the garbage truck when he arrived with the father, with nobody capable of explaining what had happened. He said they could clearly see the damage from the crusher when they saw his body in hospital.

The victim was a 31 year-old single salesman, who started his career as a fisherman before launching his own business. The family said they were comforted by protests across the kingdom, and also by officials' attention.

In an attempt to calm tensions, King Mohammed, currently touring Africa, ordered the interior minister to visit the victim's family and present royal condolences, a rare gesture of conciliation by the monarchy at a time of public protests.

Moroccan authorities have already charged 11 people with involuntary manslaughter, jailing eight of them, including two interior ministry officials, two local fisheries officials and a veterinary chief.

"This is an opportunity to make things right between Moroccans and their public administration, and hopefully everything will stay under control," Souhail said.

(Editing by Patrick Markey and James Dalgleish)



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