June 25, 2017 / 5:47 PM / 2 months ago

Morocco recalls its Netherlands ambassador over protest supporter

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco has recalled its ambassador in the Hague after accusing Dutch authorities of failing to take action against a Moroccan it says is funding civil unrest and who is residing in the Netherlands, the Moroccan foreign ministry said on Sunday.

Morocco's foreign minister named the man as Said Chaaou, a 50-year-old former parliamentarian from Morocco's northern Rif region, who has been the subject of two arrest warrants accusing him of criminal association and international drug trafficking, issued by a Moroccan court in 2010 and 2015.

The Moroccan statement did not accuse Chaaou directly of organising recent protests in the north of the country but suggested he was involved in supporting unrest in Rif region, long a hotbed of anti-government sentiment. A movement called Hirak al Chaabi in Arabic has led months of protests, accusing officials of corruption.

"Specific information has been provided to the Dutch authorities for several months regarding the involvement of this trafficker in financing and providing logistical support to certain sectors in northern Morocco," the ministry said in a statement.

"It was made clear to the Dutch authorities that it is imperative that concrete and urgent measures be taken."

The statement did not name the man, but Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told Reuters it referred to Chaaou. Chaaou did not answer calls to his telephone in the Netherlands and his lawyer could not be contacted immediately.

One of the more than 300 lawyers defending Hirak activists who have been detained and imprisoned said that Chaaou had no ties with Hirak.

"The Hirak movement has to do with demands of the people who live in the Rif," said Abdessadak Elbouchattaoui, dismissing as "rumours" reports that Chaaou provided funding and logistical support to Hirak.

In a joint statement on their websites, the Netherlands Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Security and Justice dismissed Morocco's decision to recall its ambassador as "incomprehensible and unnecessary".

A day before Morocco recalled its ambassador in the Netherlands, Chaaou streamed a nearly two-hour live video on his Facebook page in which he criticised government officials for their treatment of his native Rif region. The video was viewed more than 120,000 times.

Since October, demonstrators have repeatedly taken to the streets in Rif around the northern city of Al-Hoceima to vent their frustration over the economic, social and political problems of a North African kingdom that presents itself as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region.

"The people of Rif went to the streets with just and legitimate demands," said Chaaou in the video, in which he also asserted his support for "self-determination" for the region.

One senior Moroccan official said Moroccan authorities had in the past arrested and sentenced a Moroccan national on the request of the Netherlands for a crime committed there.

"We treat the demands of other countries seriously, and we expect the same from other countries," the official said. "Chaaou is free and feels protected. That's why he’s trying to become a political leader."

Rif once declared itself independent briefly in 1920s to resist colonial rule. Some government supporters have accused the Hirak protesters of being separatists, an idea rejected by those involved in the Al-Hoceima protests.

Chaaou is involved with a group calling for independence for the Rif region.

Since the northern protests broke out, authorities have responded by arresting as many as 100 leaders and members of Hirak al Chaabi since the end of May.

Reporting by Samia Errazzouki; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by David Goodman

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