Libya’s escaped criminals

As the new government tries Gadhafi loyalists, thousands who fled jail during the revolution arm themselves

Topics: GlobalPost, Libya,

Libya's escaped criminals In this Saturday, Feb. 24, 2012 photo, a fighter loyal to the former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi argues with the prison guards in Gherian, Libya (Credit: AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

TRIPOLI, Libya — At the height of the Libyan uprising, the country’s prisons were in chaos.

Global PostHundreds of guards had left their posts to help control the streets. Others simply fled for fear of reprisals by a population angry after four decades of oppression.

By Feb. 15 of last year, about a month into the uprising, the doors at most of the country’s prisons and jails began to swing open, allowing thousands of criminals to flee.

According to government officials, about 26,000 criminals — political prisoners were kept in separate facilities and remained in lockdown — were serving time when the escapes began. Almost 200 of those escapees were facing the death penalty for serious crimes, including murder.

“There was panic inside and outside the prisons,” said Dya Adin Badi, who, at the outset of protests last year, was in charge of seven detention facilities stretching from Ras Lanuf through Sirte to Misrata.

“The guards had fled. There was no security, no staff. We didn’t want a riot on our hands.”

In Tripoli, Col. Moammar Gadhafi had already begun to release prisoners in the hope, some claim, that they would join his army ranks. In other areas, instability left wardens with few options.

Badi said angry crowds began to form outside his prisons. Relatives began demanding the release of loved ones, many of whom, Badi said, were facing false or excessive sentences.

“We waited orders from Tripoli, but no word came, so we found our own solution,” he said.

The few staff that remained began releasing inmates 10 at a time. Those facing murder charges were kept in detention for another two days, as much for the protection of the public as for their own safety. But with no security, no staff, no budget and no food, Badi had no choice but to release them too.

Badi said some were reluctant to leave for fear of revenge killings. He recalled one man who begged to stay, but there was no one left to secure the building. His crime had been the murder of two children and their mother. Within two days of his release he was found dead, Badi said.

As the war escalated, it became impossible to tell how many others met the same fate.

Hundreds joined the rebel frontlines. Several climbed the ranks to become commanders. Many were killed in battle. Others simply fled, their whereabouts unknown.

With the proliferation of small arms on Libya’s streets today, the presence of escaped prisoners is a destabilizing force.

Misrata Police Chief Ibrahim Mohammed Alsherikcia said that although these criminals pose one of the biggest threats in the city, old records were destroyed when the Misrata courthouse was bombed and later occupied by Gadhafi forces, so they cannot simply re-arrest former inmates, no matter how serious the offense.

“They are now free criminals and all of them are armed,” he said.

Alsherikcia said that of those who joined the rebel ranks, many were martyred and “redeemed their sins.” But others took advantage of the war to gather weapons and continue their criminal activities. Even those who break the law again often go unpunished in a system where militia groups hold more power than police.

In a report released earlier this month, the United Nations expressed serious concerns about Libya’s developing justice system, as well as its ability to contend with past oppression.

“The judicial system suffers from the legacy of being used as a tool of repression,” the report read. “Existing Libyan laws will need to be repealed or amended. … The vast majority of detainees are still held outside the legal framework, despite efforts to centralize detentions.”

In some ways this emerging justice system mirrors that of the former regime, in which security forces “benefited from complete impunity,” the UN report said.

Since the end of the revolution, both ex-rebel militias and police have also administered their own form of justice, also in a “climate of impunity.” While members of Gadhafi forces are hunted down and imprisoned — so far without formal charges or access to legal aid — those who commit offenses from within the revolutionary forces continue to go unpunished.

You Might Also Like

The UN report did note one significant difference these days. Individuals or independent units, it said, are committing offenses instead of groups operating in a “system of brutality sanctioned by the central government.”

Abdullatef Gadour, a veteran prosecutor in the attorney general’s office who stayed on with the new government, said that while major changes are underway, much of the old judicial system would remain in place. Gadour said the Gadhafi-era laws were essentially adequate and fair.

“One of the few things Gadhafi didn’t destroy was the country’s judicial system,” he said. “Instead he came in through the back door.”

Instead of changing the system, Gadhafi simply created “exceptional courts and laws” for his own purposes, he said. These “closed-door” courts were used to try political prisoners and punish disloyalty to the regime outside of the criminal justice system.

In many cases, prisoners did not see a court at all.

“For every 10 prisoners on record maybe 100 went unnamed,” said Badi, who is now retired from Libya’s prison system. “He recorded this in the same way he kept records of the national budget; he chose which ones to report.”

Today, an estimated 8,000 members of the former regime, many of which are also unlisted and held in unofficial detention centers, face an uncertain future.

Gadour said investigations have begun, trials are being prepared and amendments to the law will take effect once the new constitution is completed. He estimates it will take around five months for the trials to begin.

Members of Gadhafi’s military will face a military court, while recruits and volunteers who fought on Gadhafi’s frontlines will be tried for murder in a civil court, even if their only victims were fighters, he said.

Killing in combat is not in violation of international laws that regulate warfare. But by national law, Gadour explained, while civilians among Libya’s rebel forces are legally allowed to kill the enemy, those who fought for the old regime will not receive the same concessions.

“Gadhafi troops targeted civilians, while (rebel forces) were defending them. That is the difference,” he said, dismissing reports by human rights groups that the rebels were also guilty of abuses.

Libya’s new justice coordinator, Jamal Bennor, said that, in time, the needed changes to Libya’s justice system would be made. But, he said, it is crucial to activate the security ministries, introduce the new constitution and hold national elections first. In time, justice will be applied equally.

“I think people still trust the law,” he said. “We are still far away from applying the law to many criminal actions, but we are not ignoring these crimes. All offenses will be investigated in time.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>