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Moroccan government appeals to teachers to protest peacefully

From Martin Jay, For CNN
  • Teachers say 65 of their colleagues were hurt in an earlier protest and one died
  • A government spokesman disputes the teachers claims about injuries
  • The teachers say they are angry about many issues including low pay

(CNN) -- Thousands of disgruntled teachers are expected to descend on Rabat, Morocco's capital, on Wednesday to protest the outcome of an earlier demonstration -- in which they claim 65 colleagues were seriously injured in a battle with police.

The teachers union of Morocco claims that one injured protester died on Monday after "arriving in hospital on Saturday in a coma."

They also claim that at least five suffered very serious injuries, including broken limbs.

The government says it has investigated the claims and dismissed them as folly.

Morocco's Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui, who has not made a public statement about violence in Saturday's protest, told CNN through a spokesman that the claims from the teachers of casualties were exaggerated:

"In reality only 17 were actually hurt, as most who went to hospital were just going there to get a doctor's certificate," the spokesman said. "It's normal in Morocco that protesters exaggerate the figures of those hurt, or actual incidents."

Saturday's demonstration turned ugly when protesting teachers were caught up in a scuffle with police wielding plastic batons. In recent weeks, a wave of demonstrations have taken place, but violent clashes with the authorities are rare in the North African Muslim country, where freedom of speech is more accepted by the government than in other Arab countries. An earlier demonstration involving a youth movement in Casablanca on March 20 was peaceful with few police present.

On Wednesday, it is believed the teachers will be joined by other unions that have voiced support for their cause and their complaints of maltreatment. The teachers also say they intend to strike for two days.

But they are among many groups in Morocco attempting to throw a spotlight on their own grievances, chiefly poor pay. Moroccan teachers earn approximately between $370 and $623 (U.S.) per month.

"We want the minister (of education) to do something for promoting our rights and improving our conditions," a spokeswoman, who asked to remain anonymous, explained from the union's head office in Casablanca on Tuesday.

Numerous groups in Morocco have been demonstrating in recent weeks and demanding reform.

A recent speech by King Mohammed VI shocked the nation as he pronounced a radical new constitution aimed at distributing more powers to the regional governments and an overhaul of the political system.

The blueprint is expected to be unveiled in June and has already been hailed -- both by French President Nicholas Sarkozy and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- as an example for other Arab countries to follow.

Clinton said that these initiatives "hold great promise, first and foremost, for the Moroccan people."

However, many protesters in Morocco are skeptical about the initiative and don't see it as enough, although few want the monarchy to step down.

Said Nazizi, an organizer of the teachers' strike, said he only wants to see the king's role limited to the largely ceremonial function played by monarchs in Spain or Britain.

"We don't want him to do everything. We want the parliament to decide," Nazizi told a French news agency.

Today's demonstrations in Rabat will take place iin front of the Education Ministry, although Cherkaoui, the interior minister, said he couldn't guarantee the event will be peaceful.

"I hope (Wednesday) is peaceful, as they can demonstrate and even have their sit-in ... and even express their views to the education minister," Cherkaoui said, "but if they destroy property and block the roads, there will be trouble."