Libya prisoner release stokes fears of tribal strife

BENGHAZI, Libya Thu Mar 3, 2011 9:39am EST

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BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Gutted and looted, the vandalism of some Libyan prisons and the release of inmates has sparked unrest and fear in parts of the country that have risen up against Muammar Gaddafi's rule.

Officials in Libya's rebel-held east told Reuters government forces set prisoners free when anti-Gaddafi protests took hold two weeks ago, a move certain to cause strife in a tribal society where revenge is a right.

"I'm not happy about this. There were murderers in there. The government forces opened the doors, and gathered outside were people who wanted the prisoners' blood," said Saeed Jumah, 28, as he looted a Benghazi prison.

Prisoner identification papers blew around the prison in Libya's second city of Benghazi, and rows of cells were charred black after fires. Chains in the execution chamber swung in the breeze, the trap door below the gallows open.

Libyans say the prisoners were released by government forces deliberately to undermine anti-Gaddafi protests, a move they say is similar to that used in recent anti-government protests in Egypt, when for a period of time police melted away and criminal gangs were allowed to roam free.

Reuters could only independently verify that one prison in Benghazi's Kweifieh district had been abandoned, but a revolutionary council administering regions not under Gaddafi control said other prisons in the region were also defunct. "Government forces opened most Libyan prisons allowing the criminals out in order to create chaos," said Najla al-Mangoush, a spokeswoman for the rebel revolution coalition.

With no organized police force or judicial system in the east, justice and law and order are currently in the hands of the public.

FIND HIM, KILL HIM

In Libya, where tribal loyalties are strong, the release of those accused of murder poses a particular problem. According to tradition, the murder victim's family has a right to revenge, which can be the killing of the murderer or blood money.

"My uncle was killed and I'm looking for the guy who did it. If I find him, I'll kill him. The murderer must be killed," said Hafez Kareem, 29, who said his uncle's killer had been released from a Benghazi prison.

Khalid Daghary, 31, who like Kareem, was speaking some 150 km away from Benghazi in Ajdabiyah, said he had to hide in the desert with his family fearing retribution from those seeking his cousin, who was involved in a murder and had been released from prison.

"It's awful. It's the worst thing because it causes terrible tribal problems," Daghary said, adding that he was convinced the release of prisoners was a government plot to cause strife.

Daghary, an anti-Gaddafi Islamist, said he had once been a political prisoner, but that such inmates made up only a small fraction of the prison population.

Strolling about the Kweifieh prison was local resident Nasr Barghat, 42. Nearby, looters were rolling up fencing to take away, stepping between burned out cars in the car park. A shepherd had brought his flock onto the prison lawn.

Barghat and two of the looters said a killing in a central Benghazi street the previous day was a tribal honor killing involving a released prisoner.

"This shouldn't have happened. Murderers got out, and the families of the murder victims were waiting outside," he said.

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