A Moroccan court on Monday sentenced rapper Mohamed Mounir, known as Gnawi, to one year in jail for insulting police on social media.
A defence lawyer said he believed his 31-year-old client was prosecuted because of a song he co-wrote about the hardships of young people in Morocco, unemployment and corruption.
The song, Aach al Chaab – which translates to “long live the people” – has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube since it was released last month.
The five-minute video rages against the authorities and criticises the country’s widening economic gap, a message aimed at the disillusioned younger generation.
One passage of the song reflects on the Hirak protest movement in Morocco’s impoverished Rif mountain region.
Another section profiles a mother whose sons died attempting to migrate to Europe, while another paints a picture of a young generation ruined by hashish and hard drugs.
Most shockingly to many Moroccans, the song also directly criticises Morocco’s king and his adviser, a criminal offence.
“I am an artist. My job is to defend my rights and the rights of the people. It was not the first time that I had been humiliated by the police,” Gnawi told the court.
“Since I was born, I have been humiliated,” he said.
Morocco, a kingdom long known for its stability in the Arab world, adopted constitutional reforms in response to the 2011 Arab Spring protests against corruption and abuse of power and in favour of expanding free speech.
But the country is still struggling with poverty, corruption and unemployment. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution, but with limits.
Amnesty International called the rapper’s arrest “absurd” and an “outrageous assault on free speech”.
But Mustapha Ramid, Morocco’s minister of state in charge of human rights, told Parliament that Aach al Chaab was “provocative” and “repugnant”, according to media reports.
Young people make up one-third of Morocco’s 35 million population. A quarter of those aged between 15 and 24 are unemployed and out of school, according to official figures.