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Morocco has been called one of the winners of the Arab Spring because it avoided the bloodshed that wracked Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Morocco's young king, Mohammed VI, offered a new constitution and early elections. That took the steam out of protests there, known as the February 20th movement. But human rights groups say the arrest and trial of a provocative Moroccan rap artist suggests the reforms have a long way to go.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Casablanca.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MOUAD BELRHOUATE: (Rapping in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The rap songs of 24-year-old Mouad Belrhouate are popular here, even more so after his four months in jail. He's better known as El Haqed, the defiant one, which describes lyrics explicitly critical of Morocco's social ills and the country's revered monarch. It's an attitude that also describes the young protestors of the February 20th movement. His supporters charge this trial is an attempt to silence him and them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BELRHOUATE: (Rapping in foreign language)

AMOS: Even his youngest fans come to the courthouse here to support him.

RIHAB ALAME: (Rapping in foreign language)

AMOS: Rihab Alame, an 11-year-old, knows the words to all his protest songs. She shows up for every court appearance, despite four postponements of this trial.

ALAME: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He was arrested in an unjust way. He did nothing, but they took him to prison, she says. The activists of the February 20th movement gather at the courthouse, too. Abdullah Abaakil says the arrest sends a political message.

ABDULLAH ABAAKIL: He writes protest songs, but I don't think that he was arrested for that.

AMOS: In fact, officially, the rapper's songs have nothing to do with his arrest. He was jailed on an assault charge after a brawl outside his house. Supporters say it was a setup. They add it's unusual that the attorney general of Casablanca is heading up the prosecution team for a simple assault charge. He's in jail because he's an activist, says Abaakil.

ABAAKIL: He's very popular in his neighborhood and the regime don't want to see us, as a movement, win people's hearts in the poor suburbs of Casablanca.

AMOS: The local media hasn't covered the trial, but word has spread. And with each postponement, the crowd of supporters grows larger. Sophie Hilali wears a badge with a picture of the rapper.

SOPHIE HILALI: When people went to the street for the movement of the 20th February, they used his songs. He's the image of this movement.

AMOS: The courtroom is packed when Mouad Belrhouate is finally brought before the judge, a slight young man surrounded by human rights lawyers who volunteered to defend him. Judges in Morocco are appointed by the king and often base rulings on instructions from the regime. It's why there's so much interest in this case, says Karim Tazi, a businessman and political activist.

KARIM TAZI: This case is a high profile case, it's a symbolic case because he's only an artist and they want to silence him.

AMOS: In a way, this trial is also a test of the power of a protest movement that won concessions from the king after mass demonstrations last year. Morocco has a new constitution. Elections in November made moderate Islamists the leading party in the government. That party has promised to reform Morocco's justice system and human rights groups urge the new ministers to investigate the charges against a political rap star.

Karim Tazi says that it's a loss for the regime either way.

TAZI: Because if they free him, he's going to come back and sing again. If they keep him in jail, they're adding fuel to the anger of the movement and bringing the movement back to life. They're losing, anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: After another postponement this week, Mouad Belrhouate is still in jail, but his songs sell better than ever. With his arrest, the regime has helped create a superstar.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Casablanca.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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