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Rabat/Casablanca - Moroccan police beat dozens of protesters who defied a ban on demonstrations on Sunday, leading to several injuries and arrests, witnesses said.
The police violence appears to signal a tougher government line against the protest movement, which has become more defiant after festive demonstrations starting in February.
Some are also becoming more outspoken about criticising the king, but the protests have failed to match the scale of those in several other Arab countries.
“Protest is a legal right, why is the Makhzen afraid?” crowds in Casablanca chanted, referring to the royal court. “Makhzen get out. Down with despotism.”
A Reuters correspondent saw seven riot police attacking one bearded man in his 30s, repeatedly hitting his head and body, causing severe bleeding.
“We have been called here to preserve order because of this unauthorised protest,” said a senior police officer on the scene who declined to give his name.
Protesters wanted to camp in front of the parliament in Rabat, but authorities were anxious to avoid a repeat of the events in Cairo earlier this year when protesters occupying Tahrir Square eventually helped topple the government.
In both the capital Rabat and Casablanca, police armed with batons and shields moved people off the streets wherever they gathered. Protesters broke off into smaller groups, often with police chasing behind.
One prominent protest leader in Rabat who had been beaten the week before suffered severe concussion, said protester Jalal Makhfi. About six people were injured in Rabat, he said, but others said far more were hurt.
Demonstrators said police beat dozens in Casablanca. “We are standing together for dignity,” one protest leaflet said. “We are against despotism, against corruption. We are for dignity, freedom, democracy and social justice.”
Long seen as a relatively moderate and stable state, Morocco has experienced increasing unrest this year inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
In recent months, Protesters seeking more democratic rights and economic benefits have held several nationwide protests in the country of 32 million, resulting in at least six deaths.
On Friday, a group of jobless graduates worked their way through a crowd to approach King Mohammed after he led Friday prayers and chanted “Your majesty, we want jobs”. State television cut off a live broadcast as the slogans began.
The outburst was considered a daring breach of protocol in a country where the king's portrait adorns many shops and public spaces and many treat him with reverence. The king is also the commander of the faithful, the leader of Moroccan Muslims who is said to descend from the Prophet Mohammed.
The royal family has ruled Morocco since the 17th century and survived both French colonial rule and independence.
Morocco has the lowest per capita GDP in the Maghreb region that also includes Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Many live in poverty and nearly half of the population is illiterate.
In response to the public protests, the king announced in March that he would amend the constitution to allow more democratic rights. A commission is due to announce its draft constitution next month. - Reuters