The figurehead of the Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or “Popular Movement”, Nasser Zefzafi, as well as other leaders Nabil Ahmjiq, Ouassim Boustati and Samir Ighid were jailed for “plotting to undermine the security of the state” over protests in the Rif region, which demanded jobs, development and an end to graft.
A total of 53 people were sentenced on Tuesday after a near nine-month trial, with penalties ranging from a year in prison and a fine of 5 000 dirhams to 20 years in jail, according to the Casablanca Court of Appeal judgement, which was read out in the absence of the defendants.
Journalist Hamid el Mahdaoui, who faces a charge of “not denouncing” attempts to undermine state security and was tried alongside the Hirak protesters, will have a separate hearing on Thursday.
Family and friends of the accused cried out in shock when the heaviest sentences were read out in the court, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.
A few demonstrators yelled slogans like “Long live the Rif” or “We are Zefzafi”.
Defence lawyers, who refused to plead in solidarity with the demonstrators citing “judicial bias”, intend to appeal after consulting with their clients.
“These are very harsh sentences. The state has failed the test of respecting human rights and essential freedoms, just like the independence of the judiciary,” said one of the defence lawyers, Souad Brahma.
Like most of his co-defendants, Zefzafi boycotted the final days of the trial and refused to give a statement in the last hours of the process.
The unemployed 39-year-old became a figurehead in the demonstrations for his talent for oratory. He was arrested in May 2017 after allegedly interrupting a preacher at a mosque to call for further protests.
Northern Morocco was rocked by months of protests after the death in October 2016 of a fisherman who was crushed in a rubbish truck as he tried to retrieve swordfish confiscated by authorities because they were caught out of season.
The protests demanding justice for Mouhcine Fikri, 31, quickly snowballed into a wider social movement led by Al-Hirak.
The demonstrations were largely peaceful but flashpoints of violence and a crackdown by security forces left scores wounded on both sides.
More than 400 people are believed to have been detained since May 2017 and dozens sentenced to prison over the unrest in cases that have prompted alarm and criticism from rights groups.
The Rif has long had a tense relationship with the central authorities in Rabat, and was at the heart of Arab Spring-inspired protests in Morocco in February 2011.
King Mohammed VI relinquished some of his near-absolute control through constitutional reforms following those protests.