Morocco’s Hirak Al-Rif Prisoners Receive Royal Pardon: Beginning of Reconciliation Process with Rif Region?

After being held in prison for nearly a year since massive protests broke out in the city of Al-Hoceima in the Rif region in Northern Morocco, 184 Hirak Al-Rif prisoners received a royal pardon on Eid al-Adha. The public welcomed the news considered by many to be a step towards reconciliation and rebuilding trust with the Rif region.

Yesterday, on Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Morocco’s King Mohammed VI issued a royal pardon to 184 prisoners who participated in the Hirak Al-Rif movement. 11 of the prisoners were serving sentences in Oukacha Prison in Casablanca while the rest were locked up in prisons in Al-Hoceima and Nador. The released activists included Khalid al-Baraka, Muhammad al-Muhmadali, Muhammad al-Nu’aimi, Ahmad Hakimi, Ahmad Hazat, Fahim Ghattas, Mohammed Makuh, Jawad Bilali, Mohammed al-Hani, Badr Bulhgel, and Aziz Khali, Bushra al-Ruwaisi, a member of the prisoners’ defense committee, said in a statement to the media.

The news was confirmed by Morocco’s Minister of Human Rights, Mustapha Ramid. He stated in a post on his official Facebook page that “His Majesty the king, on Eid Al-Adha, issued his pardon to a total of 184 prisoners who were arrested in connection with the events of Al-Hoceima, including 11 detainees who were tried before the Court of Appeals in Casablanca and 173 other detainees who were tried before the court of Al-Hoceima.”  

The minister praising the wisdom of the king, stated that the King’s announcement “will increase our firm belief that our country is moving in the right direction despite all the difficulties . . .  that will not prevent it from guaranteeing more rights and freedoms.” The royal pardon, he said, is “the best answer” to all those who have been spreading despair and pessimism.

Human rights activists across the country as well as the families of the prisoners had urged the king to pardon the protestors. People all across the country welcomed the pardon as a ray of sunshine after the despair and widespread resentment of the population in reaction to the prisoners being convicted and receiving what many human rights activists viewed as “harsh and unfair sentences.” On June 26, the Casablanca Court of Appeals issued sentences ranging from one to fifteen years in prison. The icon and leader of the Hirak movement, Nasser Zafzafi, and other prominent leaders such as Nabil Ahemjik, Ouassim El Boustati, and Samir Ghid, however, are serving 20-year sentences. Those individuals did not receive any pardon.

Family members of the released activists declared to the media that the royal pardon had doubled their joy during the Eid celebration. Hayat Boulahjoul, the sister of Badreddine Boulahjoul, who was released along with a group of Hirak activists, expressed her great happiness in response to the royal pardon.

In a statement to the Hespress news outlet, she said that at first she did not believe the news of the release of her brother and the other prisoners until it was later confirmed by the authorities. The news “surprised us,” she said, “although we never lost hope that the king would intervene, and thank God he responded to our appeal.”

In his August 20 speech for his 55th birthday and the King and People’s Revolution Day, King Mohammed VI acknowledged and addressed the multiple socio-economic challenges facing Moroccan youth today. He stated:

“It pains me to see that the unemployment rate among young people remains high. It is not right that one in four youths is unemployed, despite Morocco’s overall economic growth record. The figures are even more disturbing in urban areas. Despite the efforts made, the major economic projects launched and the social programs being implemented, the results achieved do not measure up to my ambitions in this regard.”

The king’s focus on the failure of the socio-economic policies in Morocco in his recent speeches — his Throne Day Speech on July 30, and his speech for the King and People’s Revolution Day on August 20 — is read by some observers as an implicit exoneration of the Hirak activists who took to the streets in Al-Hoceima demanding job opportunities, better educational institutions, hospitals, and other facilities. The total number of Hirak activists arrested between 2016 and 2018 is estimated at more than 400. The 53 activists who were sentenced in June were prosecuted for “undermining the internal order of the state,” and “formulating a conspiracy against internal security.”

However, the Hirak activists have always denied attempting to destabilize internal security or plotting against the state. They have also repeatedly rejected the accusations of that they are separatists seeking independence or conspiring against Morocco. They maintain that the only motivation behind the Rif demonstrations was calling for legitimate socio-economic rights in a region that has long been marginalized and impoverished, according to the members of the movement.

Before his arrest, Nasser Zafzafi said in a video posted on social media in May, 2017: “For six months we have been protesting and no damage was caused . . . . The country’s stability and security have remained intact . . . . If you have any evidence that we receive any funds from abroad, I will throw myself from the highest peak in the Rif . . . . As I have told you, we have no separatist inclinations. We struggle only for our legitimate socio-economic and cultural rights.” Throughout their nine-month trial, the prisoners repeatedly denied having separatist ambitions and rejected accusations that they were contributing to foreign political agendas.

Now as 184 Hirak activists are able to enjoy their freedom once again and spend the Eid celebration with their families, many have expressed hope that all the members of Hirak, including Nasser Zafzafi, will be released soon. It remains to be seen whether a complete amnesty for the protestors is on the cards.