RABAT - Human rights defenders issued a joint call Thursday for Morocco to release protesters in Al-Hoceima, a northern city shaken by seven months of demonstrations against the marginalisation of their region.
The statement comes a day after a court sentenced 25 demonstrators and suspected members of the grassroots protest movement to 18 months in jail each, according to their defence attorney.
The nightly clashes between protesters and security forces in the flashpoint city are turning more violent, a witness and a news website said Friday.
"Around 100 residents gathered on an avenue (on Thursday night) to demonstrate. Security forces intervened in strength," said one witness, contacted by telephone.
"They were hitting people. Youths dispersed into sideroads and started throwing stones, while the police used tear gas," the source said, adding that women were also attacked and several protesters hurt in running battles.
Le Desk, a news website, said: "The nightly confrontations... are turning into a riot... into pitched battles with police, with stones being thrown and tear gas fired."
The demonstrations have been taking place at night, after the breaking of the daytime fast observed during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
On Thursday the Civil Initiative for the Rif, which includes Moroccan human rights organisations and intellectuals, issued a report after conducting a tour of the restive northern region.
It called for the release of the protesters so that a dialogue can be started, warning that "otherwise the inhabitants of Al-Hoceima will continue to demonstrate".
"Apart from this prerequisite, the government must take initiatives to satisfy social demands," they added.
The protests were "spontaneous", had nothing to do with politics or trade unions, and there was no separatist motive, the group said, referring to accusations from politicians and state media.
The 25 protesters sentenced to jail on Wednesday were among 32 people arrested more than two weeks ago after clashes erupted when police tried to detain the head of the movement, Nasser Zefzafi.
They were handed prison terms of 18 months each while the other seven were given suspended sentences and fined, said defence lawyer Mohamed Ziane.
"This verdict is a patent rejection of any kind of dialogue with the protesters," Ziane said at the time.
"This sad decision can fuel more protests, and is not the right one at all to find an end to this situation."
The Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement", has been holding protests for weeks in the neglected region, demanding jobs and an end to corruption.
Its leader, Zefzafi, was arrested on May 29 and is in custody in Casablanca awaiting trial, along with other leaders of the movement.
Al-Hoceima has been rocked by social unrest since the gruesome death in October of a fishmonger, who was crushed in a rubbish truck as he protested against the seizure and destruction of swordfish caught out of season.
Demands for justice snowballed into the wider grassroots movement.
Meanwhile authorities have banned a demonstration called for by activists and labour unions to mark the anniversary next Tuesday of the June 20, 1981 food riots that shook Casablanca.
Around 100 people were killed 36 years ago in a police crackdown on protesters in Casablanca who were demonstrating against an increase in the cost of food.
Authorities have banned the commemoration of the riots, fearing the event could lead to further "disturbances".