TETOUAN, Morocco (AP) — Morocco's King Mohammed VI has pardoned some people jailed during a protest movement that has affected an impoverished northern region for months, slamming politicians and public officials for their "unprecedented irresponsibility."
The justice ministry said the king granted early releases and reduced sentences to 1,178 inmates and other convicts, including an undisclosed number of people detained during unauthorized demonstrations in the city of El Hoceima and its region.
The pardon measures were announced Saturday night on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of Mohammed VI's accession to the throne.
The Hirak protest movement has posed the biggest challenge the kingdom has faced since the Arab Spring in 2011 overthrew longstanding regimes elsewhere in the region. Morocco is a key U.S. ally known for its stability.
The protests were unleashed by the death of a fish vendor who was crushed by a garbage compactor in October while trying to recover fish that officials had confiscated.
The ministry's statement, quoted by Morocco's official MAP news agency, said some El Hoceima protesters received royal pardons "in consideration of their family and human situation."
The pardons were limited to those "who did not commit crimes or serious acts" during the protests that started in the northern Rif region and then spread to other parts of the country.
In a particularly firm speech delivered in the northern town of Tetouan for his accession anniversary, the king was quoted by MAP as criticizing some officials for "mismanaging the interests of citizens" and for displaying an "unacceptable attitude" during the protests that have turned into a major grassroots movement.
Mohammed VI blamed some officials and political parties for "going AWOL and not fulfilling their missions" to communicate with citizens and to address their problems. The king targeted public servants "whose function is to represent and supervise the citizens and to serve their interests," MAP reported.
The king made it clear his criticism was not aimed at Morocco's security forces, which he said "assumed their responsibilities with courage, patience, restraint and demonstrated great respect for the law."
Since the beginning of the movement, protesters have criticized the alleged corruption and mismanagement of public administrators and blamed political parties for an alleged lack of economic development in their region.
In his speech, the king seemed to take up some of their criticisms, but he stopped short of blaming the security forces, one of the pillars of the regime.
Earlier this month, an unauthorized demonstration over alleged inequality, corruption and insufficient government investment in the region led to new clashes between police and protesters in El Hoceima. More than 80 were injured in clouds of tear gas and running battles.
The protest was called by Moroccan activist Nasser Zefzafi, who is considered the leader of the Hirak movement. Zefzafi was arrested last month following a dramatic manhunt. The justice ministry did not say if he was among the people the king pardoned.
Police have rounded up dozens of activists in recent months, accusing some of receiving foreign money and support for protests seen as threatening Morocco's reputation.
The government has promised development projects for the region, which has a long history of rebellion against Morocco's leaders.